Former UK singer wins in Metropolitan Opera Auditions

National Council Grand Finals winners (L-R) Reginald Smith Jr., Virginie Verrez, Joseph Dennis,  Marina Costa-Jackson and Nicholas Brownlee. Photo by Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera.

National Council Grand Finals winners (L-R) Reginald Smith Jr., Virginie Verrez, Joseph Dennis, Marina Costa-Jackson and Nicholas Brownlee. Photo by Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera.

University of Kentucky graduate Reginald Smith Jr. was one of five winners Sunday afternoon in the final round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

Reginald Smith Jr. Photo via Facebook.com/reginaldsmithjrbaritone

Reginald Smith Jr. Photo via Facebook.com/reginaldsmithjrbaritone

He is only the second UK winner in the auditions, widely considered to be the most prestigious opera competition in the nation. The first was Gregory Turay, who won in 1995.

“It’s still surreal,” Smith said late Sunday evening. “It will probably hit me in the middle of the shower or something, what has happened.”

Asked about being the first singer from UK in 20 years to win, he said, “It shows UK has a lasting tradition of producing good singers capable of winning the Met competition,” and added that a two-decade gulf speaks to what a difficult competition it is to win.

“There have been loads of singers from UK who have gone on to wonderful careers without winning the Met competition,” Smith noted.

But now Smith will be known as a Met auditions winner, which he says comes with some pressure. “People look at you in a different way and expect more from you,” he said.

“I am so excited and happy for him!” Everett McCorvey, voice teacher of both Smith and Turay, texted after Smith’s win. “I told him yesterday that he had worked very hard to be where he was and that the mountain that he climbed was very high, but he climbed it, and he made it.

“I also told him that all he needed to do was go out and just  ‘do what you normally do!’  I also told him to enjoy the experience and have fun!   This is an incredible moment for our University, for the College of Fine Arts, the UK Opera program and for the process that we have put in place to train students in the School of Music.  I couldn’t be prouder!”

Smith, an Atlanta native, came to UK in 2007 on a full-tuition scholarship through the Alltech Vocal Scholarship Auditions. During his time at UK, he was a popular and busy performer singing numerous roles in UK Opera Theatre productions, as well as soloing with groups such as the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra.

Since graduating in 2012, Smith has gone on to join the Houston Grand Opera’s studio program and sang numerous roles in Houston Grand Opera productions. At Houston, Smith’s voice teacher is former UK voice professor Stephen King, whose UK student Mark Whatley went to the Met finals in 2002.

There were five winners in the final round of the 2014-15 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, which featured the nine finalists singing two arias each on the Metropolitan Opera stage with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, conducted by Fabio Luisi, in front of a live audience. Joining Smith were soprano Marina Costa-Jackson of Salt Lake City; bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee of Mobile, Ala.; mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez of Brive La Gaillarde, France; and tenor Joseph Dennis of McKinney, Texas.

Smith closed both halves of the concert, the first singing Ford’s monologue from Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff and the second with Lord Jesus Hear My Prayer from Louis Gruenberg’s The Emperor Jones. Asked if had seen it as a good sign that concert organizers wanted him to close both halves, he said, “I just thought it was part of putting together a good concert. Both my arias are dramatic and climactic.”

Each winning competitor received $15,000 and the prestige of winning the internationally recognized competition. Some of the world’s most famous current and former opera stars have won at the Met Auditions, including  Renée Fleming, Thomas Hampson,  Frederica von Stade and Deborah Voigt. The Met’s current roster of singers includes 126 Met Audition winners.

Competitors went through four rounds, starting with district and regional rounds across the country. Smith, 26, initially auditioned in his hometown Georgia District and advanced through the southeast regional round to the national semi-finals, last Sunday in New York. Recent University of Kentucky graduate Matthew Turner won in the Kentucky District and Mid-South Regional rounds to advance to New York, but did not advance to the finals. There were 17 singers in last Sunday’s national semi-finals.

Smith said he planned to celebrate by having a good drink and sleeping in, adding that he’s excited to have nothing to do Monday. Then it’s back to work preparing for another competition in New York Wednesday. He will finish up in Houston in May and then heads to Wolftrap in the Washington D.C. suburbs in the summer. He said his long term plans are to move back to Atlanta and be based out of there. He noted that would make it fairly easy to get back up to Lexington to work with McCorvey and other UK coaches.

Smith’s next performance in Lexington is currently slated to be the annual Messiah performance at Christ Church Cathedral on Dec. 4.

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