The purpose of the National Council Auditions’ Program is “to discover exceptional young talent and provide a venue for young opera singers across North America at all levels of development, to be heard by representatives of the Metropolitan Opera and to assist those with the greatest potential for operatic careers.”
It all began in the spring of 1935, when even the Metropolitan Opera was feeling the effects of the Great Depression. In order to bring in much needed cash, Mrs. Eleanor Belmont - a major donor to the Met and opera lover - established the Opera Guild, an organization consisting of opera lovers whose membership dues support the Met up to this day. As the Guild published the first Opera News in 1936, organized backstage tours and held lecture series and programs for students, Mrs. Belmont proclaimed “the democratization of the opera had begun!”
With an eye on further increasing national support for the Met, Mrs. Belmont founded the Metropolitan Opera National Council in 1952. Within the year, the National Council started organizing the Auditions of the Air, a radio show organized by the Met itself since 1935, where young American singers competed for a contract with the Met (a practice Met General manager Rudolf Bing stopped in 1950; contracts were no longer automatically awarded to the winners, as it is to this day).
William Marshall, director of the Auditions of the Air in 1950, noticed the program was dominated by New Yorkers; many young singers from around the country could not afford to make the trip even if they had the talent. As the National Council had roots in communities across the country, the Met considered it the perfect vehicle to bring the auditions to the singers. Up until today, money awarded in the first round of auditions is meant to pay for a singer’s trip to the Regionals; the Met then pays the final trip to New York for each Semi-Finalist.
Soon after reorganizing the auditions under the umbrella of the National Council, the structure of the National Council auditions as we know it today was established. The only change since 1952 has been the addition of the Grand Finals Concert, which only happened in 1998 for the first time. The National Council Auditions are held annually in 14 Regions of the United States and Canada. Within those Regions there are 42 Districts (give or take a few depending on the year), and it are the Districts which form the first round of auditions at a local level. Winners of several Districts come together in a Region for the second round of auditions, except in the Eastern Region, where the NY District does not combine with any other District. Basically, the Eastern Region consists of just 1 District.
The winners of the Region Finals (aka the second round of the auditions) move on to the Semi-Finals, the third round of the competition. On average, there are about 25 Semi-Finalists from across the country who perform two arias on the Met stage accompanied by a pianist. Between 10 and 12 singers are then chosen to perform in the Grand Finals Concert, an opportunity of a lifetime to perform in front of an audience of 4000 while accompanied by the full Met Orchestra. In this fourth and final round about 5 singers are chosen as Grand Finals winners, but the number of singers selected at each level is up to the judges’ discretion, so it changes each year.
The National Council Auditions are an amazing opportunity for up and coming opera singers, as it gives them a foot in the door with the Metropolitan Opera. Not only does each winner receive a cash price (Grand Final winners receive $15,000 - Non Winners receive $5000 - Semi Finalists receive $1500), but every Semi-Finalist can return to the Met over the course of three years to audition for its artistic staff.
While 1500 singers audition each year across the country (90 of them in the NY District/Eastern Region), as many as 100 singers on the Met roster each year have auditioned for the National Council at some point. Since the beginning of the program there have been hundreds of Grand Final winners, many who have become the opera divos and divas of their generation, such as Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, Ben Heppner, Jessye Norman, Samuel Ramey, Frederica von Stade, Deborah Voigt and Dolora Zajick.
The first two rounds of the auditions (the Districts and the Regionals) are administered by National Council members and volunteers. They are responsible for fundraising all the money needed to organize these auditions and award meaningful prize money which helps singers further their careers. Because of donors like yourself we were able to raise $18,850 at the Season Launch event on November 9th.
If you would like to find out more about our organization or make another tax-deductible donation, please go to www.nycmonc.org. Our fundraising goal for the season is $50,000 and we are halfway there! This money not only allows us to award prizes, but it also enables us to hold first class auditions, a hallmark of the National Council Auditions for over fifty years. We bring in judges from all walks of the music business (vocal teachers, conductors, singers…), hire a top-class accompanist for singers who can’t bring their own, and rent a professional concert hall with great acoustics.
Pictures in order of description below
The beautiful Korean-American soprano Hei-Kyung Hong is at the height of a career that has taken her to many of the world’s operatic capitals in an enormous variety of roles ranging from baroque to contemporary works. Following a remarkably successful debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1984 as Servilia in La clemenza di Tito, conducted by James Levine, she has gone on to sing over 350 performances at the Met in an artistic relationship spanning 30 years and counting, including the great Mozart roles Ilia (opposite Plácido Domingo), Pamina, Despina, Zerlina and both the Countess and Susanna; Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare; Puccini’s Mimì and Lauretta; Gilda in Rigoletto and Liù in Turandot (both opposite Luciano Pavarotti); Gounod’s Juliette; Micaëla in Carmen; Antonia in Les contes d’Hoffmann; Adina in L’elisir d’amore; Marzellina in Fidelio; Rosina in John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles; Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; and Freia in Das Rheingold, again under James Levine. Several of these performances were either broadcast on the Live from the Met series on PBS or were recorded for DVD and are available on the Deutsche Grammophon label.
Hei-Kyung Hong’s engagements of the 2015-16 season include her long-awaited debut as Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera, in addition to performances at the Met as Mimi in La bohème. Recent seasons have seen her in Metropolitan Opera performances of La bohème and Carmen, as well as a solo recital at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC and multiple concert tours in her native home of Korea.
She has sung in all of the most renowned theaters in North America. She made her Lyric Opera of Chicago debut as Musetta, her San Francisco Opera debut as Gilda, and has appeared at the opera companies of Dallas, Los Angeles, and Washington among many others. Her operatic repertoire expanded in these settings to include triumphs as Massenet’s Manon, Tatiana in Eugene Onegin, and Leila in Les Pêcheurs de Perles. Her triumphant Canadian Opera Company debut as Mimì was televised throughout Canada. Most recently she added the iconic role of Violetta in La traviata for the Washington Opera, with rave reviews and overwhelming audience response. In the 2006-2007 season she brought her Violetta to the Metropolitan Opera as well as her acclaimed Liù and Mimì to the popular “Met in the Parks” performances. She also made her role debut as Eva in Die Meistersinger.
European theaters have also received Hei-Kyung Hong with rare enthusiasm. Her debut at La Scala as Musetta, followed by her radiant Liù in Turandot, resulted in an offer to open their 2004 season in the famed theater’s newly renovated house as Mimì. Her debuts at Covent Garden and in Rome were again as Liù. Paris has heard her as Micaëla, the Countess in Figaro, and as Liù; in Vienna, she has been heard as Mimì, in Munich she has sung both Mimì and the Countess, and in Amsterdam she starred in a new production of La bohème created for her by Pierre Audi.
Hei-Kyung Hong’s orchestral repertoire is as broad as her operatic experience. She has sung Bach with Trevor Pinnock and the Montreal Symphony, and the late conductor and composer Giuseppe Sinopoli wrote his Lou Salome Suite for her, which they premiered together with the New York Philharmonic. Together with Maestro Sinopoli, she appeared as Liù in acclaimed concerts of Turandot in Amsterdam; this role also brought her together with Gustavo Dudamel for their first collaboration in performances at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She has appeared with the Boston Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and many others under conductors such as Charles Dutoit, Mariss Jansons, Seiji Ozawa, André Previn, and Lorin Maazel, with whom she sang the Final Scene from Daphne for the Bayerische Rundfunk. Ms. Hong was the soprano soloist with the Vancouver Symphony at the opening of Expo 86 and sang with the Calgary Philharmonic under the sponsorship of the Fifteenth Winter Olympics Committee. She made her national television debut in a 1988 PBS Gala Concert, singing excerpts from La bohème.
In January 1998, Hei-Kyung Hong presented her sold-out New York recital debut at Alice Tully Hall. That same year, Ms. Hong gave a recital at the White House by special invitation for President Clinton and President Kim of Korea. She was seen again in Washington for a duo concert marking the North American debut of celebrated tenor Andrea Bocelli at the Kennedy Center’s Spring Gala. Ms. Hong appears frequently on television: in 2001, an international television audience of over one billion people saw her perform live in Korea on the occasion of the FIFA World Cup Drawing Ceremony, and in the summer of 1995, she traveled to Korea for a series of recitals and concerts celebrating the 50th anniversary of Korea’s independence, including a televised gala concert in the Seoul Olympic Stadium, and two concerts of arias and duets with Plácido Domingo, a recording of which was released on compact disc, laser disc, and video on the Nices label.
Hei-Kyung Hong’s first solo recording of operatic arias was released in 1998 on RCA Red Seal. The following year she recorded Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi and Bellezze Vocale, a recording of operatic duets with mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, both for Teldec Classics. Her discography also includes Carmina Burana with the Atlanta Symphony for Telarc Records, Hear My Prayer—a recording of sacred songs with New York City’s Voices of Ascension Chorus for Delos Records, and a recording of Korean songs with orchestra for Virgin Classics. The soprano made her recording debut as Woglinde in Das Rheingold under the baton of James Levine, and appears on many other recordings and DVDs originating from her operatic performances.
A native of Seoul, Korea, Hei-Kyung Hong is a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music and its American Opera Center. While at Juilliard, she participated in master classes given by Tito Gobbi, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Walter Legge, and Gerard Souzay. She was one of four young American singers invited to attend Herbert von Karajan’s opera classes at the 1983 Salzburg Festival. A winner of the 1982 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, her awards and honors include a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Licia Albanese Puccini Foundation, a career grant from the Richard Tucker Foundation, and Washington National Opera’s Artist of the Year for her acclaimed performances of Tatiana in Eugene Onegin. Her stature transcends the world of classical music: in 1991 she received the Governor’s Asian-American Heritage Month Award from then-Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, in recognition of her exemplary dedication to the highest personal, professional, and community values and standards of excellence; and in 2007 the Blanton-Peale Institute presented her with the Norman Vincent Peale Award for Positive Thinking, given to those who clearly and inspirationally exemplify the power of thinking positively, with faith, deep caring for people, and dedicated commitment to improving our world. Ms. Hong resides with her family in New York.
Opera is full of food, and while no specific opera comes to mind celebrating Thanksgiving (comment below if I am wrong), it doesn't mean we can't bring some opera into our own Thanksgiving celebrations.
First up is the Sparkling Apple Harvest Cocktail, featured in the Opera Lover's Cookbook by Francine Segan.
- 1/2 ounce fresh apple cider
- Splash of orange liquor such as Cointreau
- American sparkling white wine
- Apple slice or candied orange peel for garnish
Pour the apple cider and orange liquor into a fluted champagne glass and top with wine. Serve with an apple slice or candied orange peel.
This cocktail would be perfect to have with a slice of opera cake. While not American in origin, it is now for sale in many pastry shops across Manhattan. Or, if you are feeling adventurous, why not try making one yourself while the turkey is cooking in the oven (see recipe below).
Louis XIV is responsible for many things; ballet, Versailles, autocracy, and the oppulent life style. He may not be directly responsible for inventing Le Gâteau Opéra, but he had a hand in it by hiring the pastry chef whose ancestors would later (purportedly) come up with the cake.
In 1682, the Sun King attended a banquet where he tasted little breads made by the Prince de Condé's pastry chef Charles Dalloyau. He liked them so much he hired Charles and gave him the title "Officier de Bouche,"a distinction the next four generations of Dalloyaus would hold.
When the French Revolution started in 1789, Jean-Baptiste Dalloyau immediately sensed the changing times. Whether Marie-Antoinette ever uttered the words "Let them eat cake" or not, Dalloyau took them to heart. He opened up a pastry shop in the Rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré (where the shop is housed to this day, in addition to about 30 other locations throughout the world), and decided to make his famous pastries available to all. One of the items he was famous for were his macaroons, which are still made today using a three hundred year old recipe.
Whether the house of Dalloyau also invented the opera cake is still not sure, and probably never will be. Whatever the case, they are known to have the best Opera Cake in the world. It is said that Cyriaque Gavillon, who worked at Dalloyau, came up with the cake in 1955. He wanted to create a cake where each bite would give you the flavor of all its ingredients. However, this was nothing new. Layer cakes have been around for a very long time; they were a staple in Eastern Europe years before Gavillon came up with the idea.
Larousse describes an Opera Cake as
"a cake composed of biscuit Joconde (almond sponge) soaked in strong coffee syrup and layered with coffee buttercream and chocolate ganache. An Opera, whether an individual or larger cake, is always rectangular and 3cm thick. The top is covered with icing decorated with gold leaf on which the word opera is written."
Some say such a cake was actually invented by Louis Clichy in 1890 and called the Clichy Cake. Then there are those who say the cake was made for the French Opera, with lots of coffee in it so the audience would stay awake during long operas. Others say it was just made as an ode to the Palais Garnier Opera House, hence the very grand and operatic gold leaf on top.
And for the name, well, I always knew this cake as a Javanais growing up in Belgium. However, it is said it was Gavillon's partner Andrée who christened the cake 'opera' in honor of a prima ballerina at the French opera.
(recipe courtesy of The Splendid Table and adapted from Paris Sweets: Great Desserts from the City's Best Pastry Shops by Dorie Greenspan)
- 6 large egg whites, at room temperature
- 2 tablespoons (30 grams) granulated sugar
- 2 cups (225 grams) ground blanched almonds
- 2 1/4 cups (225 grams) confectioners sugar, sifted
- 6 large eggs
- 1/2 cup (70 grams) all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons (45 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled briefly
The coffee syrup:
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons (7 grams) instant espresso or coffee
The coffee buttercream:
- 2 tablespoons (10 grams) instant espresso or coffee
- 2 tablespoons (15 grams) boiling water
- 1 cup (100 grams) sugar
- 1/4 cup (30 grams) water
- Pulp of 1/4 vanilla bean
- 1 large whole egg
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 3/4 sticks (7 ounces; 200 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
The chocolate ganache:
- 8 ounces (240 grams) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup (125 grams) whole milk
- 1/4 cup (30 grams) heavy cream
- 4 tablespoons (2 ounces; 60 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
The chocolate glaze:
- 5 ounces (150 grams) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
- 1 stick (115 grams) unsalted butter
1. To make the cake: Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C). Line two 12 1/2-x15 1/2-inch (31-x-39-cm) jelly-roll pans with parchment paper and brush with melted butter. (This is in addition to the quantity in the ingredient list.)
2. Working in a clean dry mixer bowl fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Add the granulated sugar and beat until the peaks are stiff and glossy. If you do not have another mixer bowl, gently scrape the whites into another bowl.
3. In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the almonds, confectioners sugar and whole eggs on medium speed until light and voluminous, about 3 minutes. Add the flour and beat on low speed only until it disappears. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the meringue into the almond mixture, then fold in the melted butter. Divide the batter between the pans and spread it evenly to cover the entire surface of each pan.
4. Bake the cakes for 5 to 7 minutes, or until they are lightly browned and just springy to the touch. Put the pans on a heatproof counter, cover each with a sheet of parchment or wax paper, turn the cakes over and unmold. Carefully peel away the parchment, turn the parchment over and use it to cover the exposed sides of the cakes. Let the cakes come to room temperature between the parchment or wax paper sheets. (The cakes can be made up to 1 day ahead, wrapped and kept at room temperature.)
5. To make the syrup: Stir everything together in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Cool. (The syrup can be covered and refrigerated for up to 1 week.)
6. To make the buttercream: Make a coffee extract by dissolving the instant espresso in the boiling water; set aside.
7. Bring the sugar, water and vanilla bean pulp to a boil in a small saucepan; stir just until the sugar dissolves. Continue to cook without stirring until the syrup reaches 255 degrees F (124 degrees C), as measured on a candy or instant-read thermometer. Pull the pan from the heat.
8. While the sugar is heating, put the egg and the yolk in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat until the eggs are pale and foamy. When the sugar is at temperature, reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly pour in the syrup. Inevitably, some syrup will spin onto the sides of the bowl - don't try to stir the spatters into the eggs. Raise the speed to medium-high and continue to beat until the eggs are thick, satiny and room temperature, about 5 minutes.
9. Working with a rubber spatula, beat the butter until it is soft and creamy but not oily. With the mixer on medium speed, steadily add the butter in 2-tablespoon (30-gram) chunks. When all the butter has been added, raise the speed to high and beat until the buttercream is thickened and satiny. Beat in the coffee extract. Chill the buttercream, stirring frequently, until it is firm enough to be spread and stay where it is spread when topped with a layer of cake, about 20 minutes. (The buttercream can be packed airtight and refrigerated for 4 days or frozen for 1 month; before using, bring it to room temperature, then beat to smooth it.)
10. To make the ganache: Put the chocolate in a medium bowl and keep it close at hand. Bring the milk and cream to a full boil, pour it over the chocolate, wait 1 minute, then stir gently until the ganache is smooth and glossy.
11. Beat the butter until it is smooth and creamy, then stir it into the ganache in 2 to 3 additions. Refrigerate the ganache, stirring every 5 minutes, until it thickens and is spreadable, about 20 minutes. (The ganache can be packed airtight and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for 1 month; bring to room temperature before using.)
12. To assemble the cake: Line a baking sheet with parchment or wax paper. Working with one sheet of cake at a time, trim the cake so that you have two pieces: one 10-x-10-inches (25-x-25-cm) square and one 10-x-5-inches (25-x-12.5-cm) rectangle. Place one square of cake on the parchment and moisten the layer with coffee syrup. Spread about three-quarters of the coffee buttercream evenly over the cake. (If the buttercream is soft, put the cake in the freezer for about 10 minutes before proceeding.) Top with the two rectangular pieces of cake, placing them side by side to form a square; moisten with syrup. Spread the ganache over the surface, top with the last cake layer, moisten, then chill the cake in the freezer for about 10 minutes. Cover the top of the cake with a thin layer of coffee buttercream. (This is to smooth the top and ready it for the glaze - so go easy.) Refrigerate the cake for at least 1 hour or for up to 6 hours; it should be cold when you pour over the glaze. If you're in a hurry, pop the cake into the freezer for about 20 minutes, then continue.
13. To glaze the cake: Bring the butter to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove the pan from the heat and clarify the butter by spooning off the top foam and pouring the clear yellow butter into a small bowl; discard the milky residue. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over—not touching—simmering water, then stir in the clarified butter. Lift the chilled cake off the parchment-lined pan and place it on a rack. Put the rack over the parchment-lined pan and pour over the glaze, using a long offset spatula to help smooth it evenly across the top. Slide the cake into the refrigerator to set the glaze and chill the cake, which should be served slightly chilled. At serving time, use a long thin knife, dipped in hot water and wiped dry, to carefully trim the sides of the cake so that the drips of glaze are removed and the layers revealed.
Storage: Each element of the cake can be made ahead, as can the assembled cake. The cake can be kept in the refrigerator, away from foods with strong odors, for 1 day, or you can freeze the cake, wrap it airtight once it is frozen, and keep it frozen for 1 month; defrost, still wrapped, overnight in the refrigerator.