When one thinks of a competition, opera may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but Portland State has been holding an annual opera scholarship competitions since the 1990s.
Thanks to endowments from PSU Alumni Richard Helzer and PSU Emeritus Faculty member David Jimerson, opera aficionados at PSU can compete for the chance to win big prizes. First place wins the David A. Jimerson Endowed Vocal Scholarship of $5,000, 2nd place wins the Richard Helzer Opera Scholarship of $3,000, and 3rd place wins the Richard Helzer Opera Scholarship of $1,500.
Vocal Area Coordinator Christine Meadows started the competition to help alleviate a struggle that many students face: balancing their work and school schedule. “That’s the main reason we started this [scholarship], as a way for students who are really working hard and doing well in our program to get more scholarship money.”
Competitors agree, many citing financial security as one of the main reasons for competing. Wyatt Jackson, a bass baritone, said, “[Winning] would secure my funds for all of next year and really just lock in my ability to finish up my masters degree here.”
Other competitors such as Ava Price, a mezzo soprano, are doing it for the cachet as well as the money that it will bring. “It would be very financially helpful,” Price said. “I do also like the prestige that comes with it and you get noticed. People appreciate all of the hard work that you are putting in behind the scenes.”
For Avesta Mirashrafi, a tenor, the reason for competing is more personal. The youngest competitor said, “It would really help solidify to my parents that I am not a bad singer and the money would really help.”
The competition was held in the Lincoln Recital Hall, an intimate space where the roughly 40 members of the audience were up close and personal with the singers. As members of the audience began to file in, Meadows could be seen greeting people and having conversations with various people in the crowd—highlighting how tight knit this community is.
Five contestants were competing for the opportunity to win these scholarships, and they all knew one another. They have been in the program together and performed in many of the productions that PSU has put on together.
Two rows were roped off in the middle for the judges of the bout. The competition was judged by Megan Sand, a member of the voice faculty at PSU’s School of Music and Nicholas Larson, the director of vocal studies at Oregon State University. Chuck Dillard, collaborative piano area coordinator at PSU, provided piano accompaniment for the singers.
The competition has two rounds. Competitors each picked three songs to sing and during the first round they sing the song of their choice. In the second round, judges decide who they want to hear sing again, then they get to pick what they sing from the remaining two songs.
Eric Olson, a baritone, started off the first round of the competition with a rendition of “Hai gia vinta la causa” from Le nozze di Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Austin Allen, a baritone, concluded the first round with “Quand la flamme de l’amour” from La Jolie fille de Perth by Georges Bizet.
The judges deliberated as the crowd took a brief intermission. All contestants were asked to come back out and sing a second song. They went back down the list in the same order. Once concluded, the judges deliberated for a final time.
They came out on stage and expressed the closeness of the competition and the difficulty they faced in choosing a winner. First place and a $5,000 scholarship went to Austin Allen. Allen— originally from Portland—has spent the last four years in New York at the Manhattan School of Music, as well as working and auditioning in the theatre scene there. Following the competition Allen had this to say, “I feel great. It’s a little surreal, but it feels good. I’m working and paying everything that isn’t a grant out of pocket. This will be a lot of peace of mind so I can focus on auditions and things outside of school. I’m excited.”
Price gained some recognition for all of her hard work, winning 3rd place and the $1,500 scholarship. Second place and $3,000 went to Mirashrafi.