A honey-voiced Lebanese-born soprano walked off Tuesday with a Royce Hall audience’s cheers — and a fair-sized check — to climax the eighth annual running of Operalia, Placido Domingo’s high-prestige (and high-paying) vocalist contest, held this year for the first time in Los Angeles. Twenty-six-year-old Isabel Bayrakdarian’s singing of a tonsil-twisting Rossini aria triumphed over formidably talented competition through a five-day elimination that saw an initial field of 41 worldwide hopefuls narrowed down to a final 15.
Founded in 1993 by supertenor Domingo, with handsome backing by, among others, philanthropists and arts patrons Alberto Vilar and Lloyd Rigler, Rolex Watch U.S.A. and Grand Marnier, Operalia is open to contestants 30 and under. The competition has already helped launch a number of world-class singers, among them tenor Jose Cura (recently Alfredo in the PBS “La Traviata”), sopranos Inva Mula and Elizabeth Futral and countertenor Brian Asawa. Previous contests have run in Paris, Mexico City, Tokyo, Hamburg, Madrid, Bordeaux and San Juan.
Although this year’s slate of finalists, backed by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, listed seven Russians (plus one from the Ukraine and another from Armenia) among the 15 competitors, only Russia’s Daniil Shtoda (who tied China’s He Hui for the $25,000 second prize) and Ukrainian Konstyantin Andreyev (who tied Canada’s Robert Pomakov for the $15,000 third) made it to the inner circle, sharing the spotlight with Bayrakdarian and her $50,000 top prize.
Argentinian soprano Virginia Tola, who seemed determined to set the stage afire with one of Bellini’s juiciest mad scenes and an equally sizzling Spanish number, walked off with the $10,000 “Public Prize” (determined by paper ballots from the live audience plus e-mail response from radio listeners to the KMZT-FM broadcast), plus another $10,000 from longtime Los Angeles opera supporter Lloyd Rigler. No finalist, in fact, left empty-handed; the least among them pulled down a minimum of $5,000 per.
The ten-member judges’ panel included the American singer Marilyn Horne and heads of opera companies in Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Mexico and the U.S.