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Big day for bass-baritones at Met Opera finals

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NEW YORK (AP) - Did someone say, "Lend me a tenor"?

Eight promising young singers, chosen from nearly 1,500 who entered district and regional competitions, got a chance to perform from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera on Sunday afternoon.

The contestants, all in their 20s, were three sopranos, a baritone, a bass and three bass-baritones. Curiously, there was not a tenor in the bunch, nor any mezzo-sopranos, for that matter.

When each had performed two arias _ accompanied by the Met orchestra and conductor Patrick Summers _ a panel of judges picked five as winners of the 2011 Met National Council Auditions. Each receives $15,000 toward further study, and even the three losers get $5,000.

Perhaps more important than the money is the fact that, as emcee and star mezzo Joyce DiDonato reminded the audience, in a typical season 100 or more past audition participants are on the Met's roster. (Of course, as DiDonato quickly added, many singers who didn't win have become big stars at the Met _ like her!)

The house was close to full, and the spectators _ many of them friends, family and colleagues of the contestants or volunteers who help make the auditions possible _ applauded warmly after each aria. The annual competition has become known to a wide public since a documentary film called "The Audition" was made about the 2007 finals.

The moment Michelle Johnson opened her mouth to sing, it was pretty clear the soprano from Pearland, Texas, would end up in the winner's circle. Johnson has a lustrous, dark-hued lyric soprano voice and an ability to float high notes of unusual power and purity. She used her gifts to good advantage in an aria from Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur" and in "Dove sono" from Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro."

The other winners were all deep-voiced men:

_ Joseph Barron, a bass-baritone from Pittsburgh, showed off a big voice with good flexibility in an aria from Bellini's "La Sonnambula" and ended the program in fine style with a spirited account of Mephistopheles' mocking serenade from Gounod's "Faust."

_ Ryan Speedo Green, a bass-baritone from Suffolk, Va., declaimed Banquo's aria from Verdi's "Macbeth" impressively but really came into his own with a gleefully enthusiastic rendition of "La calunnia," Don Basilio's aria about the joys of spreading slander from Rossini's "The Barber of Seville."

_ Joseph Lim, a baritone from Seoul, South Korea, pushed his pleasant-sounding voice a bit in Count Almaviva's aria from Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" but followed with a deeply felt performance of Prince Igor's great aria from Borodin's opera.

_ Philippe Sly, a bass-baritone from Ottawa, Canada, displayed a smooth, sweet sound in a bravura aria from Handel's "Rinaldo" and in Wolfram's "Song to the Evening Star" from Wagner's "Tannhaeuser."

Actually, there was one tenor on stage during the afternoon _ Lawrence Brownlee, who won the auditions 10 years ago and recently wrapped up a run at the Met in Rossini's "Armida." He treated the audience to two arias while the judges deliberated. He began with the tender "Je crois entendre encore," from Bizet's "The Pearlfishers," and wrapped up with "Ah! mes amis," from Donizetti's "The Daughter of the Regiment," tossing off all nine of those famous high Cs with aplomb.

Brownlee is probably the closest thing there is to a black American superstar in opera these days, so it was especially heartening that two of the winners, Johnson and Green, also are black.

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