- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 10, 2001

Music's ability to dissolve borders and transport enraptured listeners to another world was made clear during the Operalia concert at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium Sunday night. The event, a 9-year-old international vocal competition for aspiring artists hosted by supertenor Placido Domingo, began a few hours after the United States began military strikes against targets in Afghanistan.

Dedicated to the victims of last month's terrorist attacks, the event still managed to attract more than 1,000 multilingual opera buffs, many of whom seemed to lose themselves in the music and deliberations over which stunning young talent should win the People's Choice award.

"It's just so beautiful. It transcends everything: the plane crashes, everything," said Myrtle Farrington of Arlington.

At a break after three hours of lovely music, however, almost half of the audience left, some surely anxious for up-to-the-minute news from the Middle East. "The French ambassador's wife went to call her husband, but she's still here," said Grace Bender, who organized the event.

"So that's a good sign."

Narrowed down from 900 applicants, 40 singers were flown in last week for several days of competition. On Sunday, 16 finalists from 13 countries (two from the United States) strode onstage in shimmery gowns or tuxedoes to sing arias with the Washington Opera Orchestra before the audience and 12 judges. All performed with great gusto and skill beyond their years none was older than 30. Still, Operalia offers the singers an unparalleled opportunity to win international recognition and a handsome cash prize (a $50,000 gift from philanthropist Alberto Vilar).

The top five contestants will perform with Mr. Domingo at a gala concert at the Kennedy Center Jan. 19. They'll also have the world-famous tenor as an expert career coach in a fiercely competitive and rarefied field.

Mr. Domingo, of course, is the artistic director of the Washington Opera, but this is the first year the city has hosted Operalia. Last year's contest was in Los Angeles (he's also artistic director of the Los Angeles Opera), and next year's will be held in June in Paris, where the nonprofit L'Association Operalia is headquartered. On Sunday night, Mr. Domingo took to the stage as conductor during the last few arias and proved he is an impressive presence even when he's not singing.

Mr. Domingo said later that the group of new opera talent gets better and better every year, though his choices don't always match the judges' picks.

"I don't entirely agree, but what can I tell you? It's a matter of opinion," he said.

While the judges convened, audience members scribbled notes in their programs, voting for their own favorites. Rachelle Durkin, a statuesque Australian who sang "Ah, non credea" from "La Sonnambula," drew some raves, as did Alessandra Rezza, a robust 23-year-old soprano from Italy who opened the concert with an aria from "Macbeth."

Shirley Moyer, a singing instructor and ardent opera fan, fell for Hoo-Ryoung Hwang, a petite 29-year-old from South Korea. "She's so elegant," Ms. Moyer said.

The crowd's final choice, however, was a 24-year-old soprano from the Republic of Georgia, Elizaveta Martirosyan, whose aria from "Lucia de Lammermoor" had drawn a chorus of bravas and one loud "Brava indeed."

The judges' top choice was Chinese mezzo-soprano Guang Yang, who said while receiving endless congratulations at a post-performance party that Chinese singers often are drawn toward Western music. "It doesn't matter what nationality you are to share and enjoy this beauty," she explained.

The lavish buffet supper for 125 guests hosted by Giant Foods heir Sam Lehrman and his wife, Susan, in their palatial home in Northwest featured an astonishing variety of international dishes prepared by Federal City Caterers with the help of 45 cooks, waiters and support staff. In the dining room, chateaubriand, pan-seared foie gras, baby lamb chops and petits haricots verts were among the French specialties, with antipasti, penne with lobster and other Italian favorites beckoning from across the way in a large breakfast room. In between, an Asian station (sushi, sashimi, Peking duck, teriyaki salmon) provided a scrumptious sanctuary for partygoers who love hanging out in the kitchen. To honor Mr. Domingo, there was Mexican food, including empanadas and quesadillas in a nearby den as well.

Far fewer guests wandered to the paneled billiard room on the lower level, which was well-stocked with American home-style treats corn pudding, Southern fried chicken, sausage and barbecued beef brisket.

Despite the undeniable sentiments of the flag-pin-wearing crowd, patriotism inevitably waned. The foie gras and sushi were upstairs. So were Mr. Domingo and a new generation of opera stars.

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