Vocal Students Compete In National Opera Competition
That Sam Houston State University vocal performance majors Ardeen Pierre and Nicholas Szoeke were selected as finalists to participate in the Carolyn Bailey and Dominick Argento Vocal Competition this month is remarkable in-and-of itself—only 10 students in the nation were selected to participate in the National Opera Association-sponsored contest in New York City.
But perhaps even more remarkable is that the seniors had never sung opera before stepping onto the SHSU campus.
Szoeke discovered his love for music in the third grade, when his mom—herself a singer—encouraged him to join the choir.
“I did a solo for a Veterans Day choir, and I sang the first verse to ‘God Bless America.’ People thought I was all right, and so I thought I would stick with it,” he said. “Then I fell in love with it.”
Szoeke not only loved singing, but he excelled at it. While competing in the all-state choir process in high school, he met former School of Music chorale director Allen Hightower, and though he had auditioned at two other schools, Hightower encouraged him to check out SHSU.
“I came here, auditioned and I really liked the school, really liked Dr. Hightower, and I decided that I wanted to stay here,” he said, adding that his sister is an SHSU alumna, with an education degree, and his brother had also attended SHSU.
Throughout his freshman year, Szoeke focused on choir, but after associate professor of voice Christopher Michel offered him tickets to see the Houston Grand Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Szoeke’s musical interests took a turn.
“I didn’t really know much about opera, but he told me about Peter Grimes. He said it was interesting, aesthetically, and he told me to check it out and see what I thought,” Szoeke said. “I ended up really enjoying it. When I came back, I saw the SHSU (Opera Workshop) scenes production and I loved that, so when they did The Magic Flute, which is a Mozart opera, and it had a baritone role, Papageno, I auditioned and got the role. I had a lot of fun with that…it’s just a great character. So I just stuck with it.”
Pierre, from Houston, also entered into music through choir, but not because she wanted to.
“I started singing choir when I was a sophomore in high school because my mom was actually pushing me to join an after-school activity,” she said. “I wanted to join the French club because I speak French, but it was full, so choir was the only thing that was open. Then I fell in love with it.”
While Pierre also excelled in music, and even got a vocal coach in high school, she came to SHSU as a creative writing major. Her passion for singing eventually overcame her passion for writing, and under the influence of Hightower, she, too, joined the choir.
“On a whim I decided to change it to music education and last year, during our spring recital, I decided I wanted to be more on stage, so I changed to vocal performance,” she said. “I found that I feel more comfortable on stage than talking to a group.”
Pierre said she was encouraged to join Opera Workshop but initially was hesitant because of the stereotypes she maintained of opera.
“I thought opera was all about yelling and screaming, but I went a show, where they were doing different Italian operas, to support the opera students, and I fell in love with the lighting, the music, the singing, the costumes, and I’m like ‘OK, I think I want to join now; I want to be up there with them,’” she said. “That’s when I decided I wanted to be an opera performer and be on the stage.”
The difference between singing in a choir and singing opera is that in choir, singers focus more on blending in, while opera is more individualistic, the singers said. While Szoeke said there are many similar techniques in singing both, there is an acting element in opera that makes opera comparable to musical theatre.
“Opera was the first musical theatre. This is what they did in the 17th and 18th centuries; they wanted a new form of entertainment and that was opera,” he said. “Opera is just grand scale; it’s so much fun.
“The music is so beautiful, and if you allow yourself to be enthralled by it, you’ll hear these singers with so much sound and beauty to their voices, and with the orchestra always playing flawlessly, it’s just an amazing art form,” he continued. “It really takes music and acting and staging and lighting and everything and puts it in this grand scale that can be attainable to everyday audience as well. It’s just a masterpiece.”
Singing opera at SHSU has been fruitful for both Pierre and Szoeke.
Pierre recently won first place at the Texoma NATS regional singing competition, which included students from more than 50 regional universities. Szoeke also made it to the semifinals in the competition.
Szoeke, who has been considered a standout in the SHSU opera program since his freshman year, has also sung under contract for Opera in the Heights and Lone Star Lyric Opera, two professional regional opera companies. He has been recognized as a NATS featured performer and as a two-time featured performer at the National Opera Association’s Scenes Competition. In addition, he previously worked with the Kingwood Young Artist program and The Druid City Young Artist program.
While neither vocalist won the annual Carolyn Bailey and Dominick Argento Competition, to be in contention for the grand prize is an accomplishment on its own.
“This is exactly the kind of success I would want for any student,” said Michel, who is both students’ voice teacher. “It takes many years of study to learn the craft of operatic singing, and to have a singer invited to a national competition while still an undergraduate student is a wonderful testament to everyone’s hard work and dedication.”
Finalists were selected from across the nation after being screened through two preliminary and semi-final rounds of judging. For the competition itself, Pierre and Szoeke, and the eight other singers, were required to perform four different operatic arias in at least three different languages.
“The opportunity to compete at the national level makes me excited for the future. I can’t think of a better way to end my four years at Sam Houston State,” said Pierre, who has been seen on stage in numerous SHSU Opera Workshop productions in addition to Druid City Opera Workshop and Raven Opera Workshop productions.
“This was not only a great opportunity professionally, but it also gave me a chance to use the experience of this competition as preparation for graduate school auditions in the spring,” he said. “We had an amazing time getting to perform for everyone.”
After graduating from SHSU this spring, Szoeke hopes to continue his career as a singer. With dreams of performing in many of the greatest music halls in the world, he has learned to take it one day at a time in order to reach his goals.
“Right now all I can do is keep working to get better, and keep searching for ways to get my voice out into the world,” he said. His next step in the process is to attend graduate school next year to further his vocal studies and polish his technique.
Pierre also hopes to continue to sing professionally. As someone who still feels “new” to the profession, she plans to audition with the Houston Grand Opera Chorus and gain enough experience to make her feel more comfortable as an opera singer.
“I just want to keep learning, keep improving my voice,” she said. “The world of opera is very competitive, and I’ve heard so many amazing singers who make me feel a little intimidated. These are singers who have been singing all of their lives, and I feel like I don’t have as much experience with it, so I want to keep working on it.”
In the meantime, Pierre and Szoeke are currently in rehearsals for their return to the Gaertner Performing Arts Center stage on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, when they will perform the lead roles in SHSU’s opera production of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas featuring the tragic love story of the Queen of Carthage and the fabled founder of Rome.
Tickets for SHSU’s opera Dido and Aeneas are currently available online at shsu.edu/boxoffice or by calling 936.294.2339.
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