Looking Back, Looking Forward : An Interview with 2016 Competition Winners

Competitions are a fact of life for up-and-coming singers. Nerve wracking as it may be to ask experts to judge your performance, the experience of auditioning with your peers and getting feedback from the panel is highly educational. Once in a while, the hard work, nervousness, and effort result in an added benefit: a win!

I caught up with some of the first-place winners from the 2016 CS Music Vocal Competition in Boston. They shared their memories of the convention and competition and reflected on how their wins have shaped their careers. In addition, they shared their best advice for future competitors in the competition.

CS Music Convention: More than Just the Competition

Dana Varga, winner in the Classical Young Artist/Emerging Professional Division, lives in Boston. For her, the Classical Singer Convention at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel was a perfect place to win such a prestigious award. “It was exciting to land the win at home,” she says.

Aside from prime location, the convention had other features that enhanced the singers’ experience. The university and high school winners all mentioned masterclasses as learning opportunities at the convention. Current graduate student and Classical University Division winner Samson McCrady focused mainly on the competition while in Boston but also took time to attend a masterclass with master teacher and internationally acclaimed soprano Juliana Gondek.

Musical Theatre High School Division winner, Grace Kinstler, also found inspiration in the masterclasses. “My favorite part of them was watching a critiquing session for someone else and seeing them do things that they never knew they could do before,” Kinstler shares. “It’s such a wonderful thing to see! It was incredible to see all of the talented people there, and I was elated when I got to perform in the final-round concert with some of them.”

Maggie Kinabrew, Classical High School Division winner, was a senior with plans to attend Oberlin when she came to the convention. Even though her undergraduate studies were settled, she enjoyed meeting representatives from music schools during the expo. Her competition prize included scholarship offers to Cleveland Institute of Music and Eastman School of Music, which encouraged her to start thinking early about graduate school.

The competition included a few other special moments for the 2016 winners. Kinabrew turned 18 on the day of the finals and describes her win as the “best birthday gift ever.” Varga, who was pregnant during the competition, got an extra confidence boost from renowned soprano and finals judge Deborah Voigt. “She assured me that no one could tell I was four months pregnant in my gown!” Varga relates.

The Many Roads to a Win

Driving through a blizzard from Hartford to Boston for her first-round audition at the Boston Conservatory was a dramatic start to the process for Kinabrew. She reflects now that she is “very happy” she made the trip.

Kinstler and McCrady’s paths to their first-place wins were longer, if less snowy. At the 2015 convention in Chicago, Kinstler advanced to the semifinals on her first competition attempt. Her teacher, who had suggested she enter, encouraged her to try again in 2016. Similarly, McCrady had sung in the CS Music Vocal Competition twice before 2016, advancing to the second round in the Classical High School Division on his first attempt and then the Classical University Division semifinals on his second try. He describes his 2016 win as “a surprise, an honor, and somewhat a relief all at once.”

Classical Young Artist/Emerging Professional Division winner Varga was “thrilled” to earn first place at this point on her artistic path, not just because of the hard work that has helped her grow but precisely because of where she is in her development. “As a somewhat older singer, it is encouraging to know that ‘I still got it,’” she shares. “Actually, I feel I ‘have it’ more than ever (good technique and artistry take time!), so I was happy that Classical Singer didn’t have a low age cutoff for this division.”

While recalling what led them to the competition, each winner looked back to earlier years, remembering teachers and organizations who offered education and mentorship. Varga and Kinstler each credit previous teachers for their advice on repertoire and auditions. McCrady started singing at age 10 with the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, and Kinabrew also began her studies at a young age, with the Connecticut Children’s Chorus at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School. Their experience shows that at any age the path to a win can be winding, but educational and exciting as well.

Familiar Repertoire Leads to Big Rewards

Ever been tempted to go into an audition with a piece that is fairly new? The experience of these competition winners suggests it’s not such a good idea. Kinabrew, a young soprano, sang “In uomini, in soldati” from Così fan tutte for the finals. The piece was quite familiar: it had been one of her college audition pieces. She knew it fit her voice well and she had worked on it enough that she was comfortable and confident.

The payoff for all that preparation? She is grateful for her prize, but the most striking benefit of her win was the determination it gave her to pursue her dreams. As a graduating high school senior, she was nervous about pursuing a vocal career. “Winning reaffirmed that I could do this and that I want to do it,” she says.

Baritone McCrady sang “Come Paride vezzoso” from L’elisir d’amore for the finals. He had plenty of history with that aria, having sung the role of Belcore the previous summer with Finger Lakes Opera. His win made it possible for him to study at the Bassi Brugnatelli International Conducting and Singing Symposium in Milan.

Another winner whose prize led to travel was Musical Theatre High School Division winner Kinstler. In early 2017, she met with Duncan Stewart in New York as part of her scholarship prize from Virtually Vocal. She describes the casting director as “insightful and awesome to work with,” adding that “he gave very helpful advice on how to always be real onstage, and we worked through my repertoire with that sentiment in mind.”

For Varga, whose career has taken her across the country and abroad, her first-place win let her stay closer to home: the self-employed singer and voice teacher funded her maternity leave with her winnings. She sang “In quali eccessi . . . Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata” from Don Giovanni in the finals, recalling that she had wanted to sing it while a graduate student at New England Conservatory. Her teacher advised her to delay, and years later the aria has proven to be worth the wait.

One Year Later

Unsurprisingly, each hard-working and talented winner is thriving in their genre. Musical Theatre High School Division winner Kinstler released an album of original music on iTunes and other digital music platforms; samples are available on her YouTube page. Also in the past year she returned to Boston for a Vocal Summit at Berklee College of Music and starred as Deloris Van Cartier in her high school’s production of Sister Act.

Now wrapping up her freshman year at Oberlin, Kinabrew has been studying Mozart and Handel arias as well as songs of 20th-century composers such as Samuel Barber. With such a fondness for Mozart, she is looking forward to auditioning for the school’s production of Le nozze di Figaro in the fall.

McCrady is continuing his studies at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. This summer he will debut with Cincinnati Opera in their production of Frida, an opera by Robert Xavier Rodríguez based on the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Since winning the top prize in her division, Varga has secured management with Martha Wade of Wade Artist Management, a New York-based agency representing classical and jazz vocalists. Varga has extensive operatic credits, including a recent comprimario role in Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg with Odyssey Opera, but her main focus is oratorio. Upcoming concert engagements include Brahms’ Requiem, Orff’s Carmina Burana, and Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass.

Winning Advice

With a thriving teaching studio, Varga often advises young singers—and she has thorough advice for other singers in the competition, particularly stressing the need for preparation. “Singers tend to practice far less than instrumentalists,” she says. “This has never made sense to me, especially with our added language component!”

Additionally, she counsels, “Be true to yourself and the music you love to sing and always be prepared. Know exactly what you are saying, what you want to express—and spend the time in the practice room nailing down the necessary technique to bring your performance to life.”

The value of daily work was also evident in McCrady’s advice that singers cultivate patience and dedication. He suggests they be dedicated to “technical excellence and artistic development on a daily basis,” though “one must remind oneself that everything will not come at once.”
Kinabrew’s tips were specific to the CS Music Vocal Competition experience. First, she says, don’t try to make too many changes based on comments received at the competition. She admits there is temptation to play around with technique and interpretation at the last minute, but “there’s only so much you can do in two days.”

She also advocates focusing on making each piece an entertaining performance. Singing Despina’s aria meant doing what she could to make people laugh. Each singer will find their own way to entertain, but her final suggestions apply to all competitors: Be confident and “never assume you are going to fail.”

Encouragement and Success

With many divisions based on experience, interest, and age, the CS Music Vocal Competition reaches singers at differing levels of development and across genres. The 2016 winners prove that a competition win gives a welcome boost to careers at any stage. While prizes are exciting and welcome, for each of these singers the competition provided even more than scholarships, cash prizes, or new opportunities.

Their accomplishments also gave them encouragement, drive, and focus. Their wins are milestones on the paths of what will hopefully be long careers, giving them a point in time to look back to and recall the hard work that got them there and the future goals that inspire their work.

One year later, each of these winners still demonstrates the diligence, creativity, and artistry that helped them score a win in Boston last spring. They now have additional experience and wisdom, which they shared with Classical Singer a year later. Their enthusiasm and energy were apparent in their reflections on the competition, and their gratitude for the opportunity was clear as well. Varga seems to speak for all of the winners when she concludes our interview with, “Thank you, Classical Singer!”

Margaret Felice

Margaret Felice is a singer, educator, and writer living in Boston. She is executive director of Boston Singers’ Resource. Read more at www.margaretfelice.com or find her on social media.