by John Rizzo
It was a rainy evening, but that did not dampen the spirits of the opera fans who attended the community’s annual showcase of vocal artistry on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012, at Casa Italia.
The Vocal Scholarship Awards Dinner has evolved dramatically over the past several years. A few decades earlier, the 37-year-old event was a quiet-but-sociable evening of entertainment presented by mostly C-level young singers, and attended by 40 or 50 people that enjoyed their Italian dinners more than the music. Today the event features a parade of brilliant, outstanding vocalists, many of whom are sure to be performing big-time opera in the near future.
There were many familiar faces in the packed Chandelier Room of Casa Italia, many of which have been enjoying this annual tribute to Italian culture for years. There was, however, one familiar face not in the audience: Nick Raimondi, after whom the event is co-named, and a man who regularly funded one of the contest winners, passed away about a month ago. But Nick’s wife, Estelle, and daughter, Michelle, were there for a wonderful concert dedicated to his memory.
Nick was a fine and generous man who loved and knew a lot about Italian opera. He felt obligated to nurture the careers of young singers, who have such a tough row to hoe in their oftentimes frustrating and difficult quest to become professional artists. It’s a shame that we all missed out on Nick’s good-humored company on this particular evening. But he was surely there in spirit, and must have been ecstatic to witness this remarkable show.
He would have been jubilant to hear the performance of Casey Candebat–a real tenor, the likes of which have not been seen for a long time on the Casa stage. For his aria, Casey, the winner of the award that bears Nick’s name, sang the breezy “Questa o quella,” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” He finished his performance (and the concert), with a stirring rendition of “Core ‘ngrato,” that passionate song written by Italian immigrant Salvatore Cardillo for none other than Enrico Caruso.
The tenor’s bravura performance was preceded by another superb artist, who is sure to grace the stages of the great houses with her talent and beauty–Kelsey Betzelberger, in an excellent portrayal of Violetta, with her signature multi-movement aria, “E strano…Ah! fors’ lui…”-“Follie…Sempre libera.” Another truly wonderful and wickedly difficult aria, Fiordiligi’s “Come scoglio,” from Mozart’s “Cos“ fan tutte,” was reeled off in an incredibly dramatic performance by soprano Jessica Ann Vadney.
The concert began with some Puccini, “Quando m’en vo” (“Musetta’s Waltz”), sung with great feeling by soprano Angela DeVenuto. Another familiar Puccini piece, “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” (“Doretta’s Dream”), was interpreted beautifully by soprano Kelsey Bosche. The four “Honorable Mention” contestants–Zachary Elmassian, Lila Powell-Khazoum, Alexandra Nowakowski and Kojelyte Johnson–rounded out the program with well-performed songs and arias.
The contest is growing yearly, with 29 contestants vying for scholarships this year. Three years ago, there were only three prizes: two $1,000 awards from Leonora LiPuma and Nick Raimondi, and another from Leonora for $750. Then the Italian American Executives of Transportation (IAET) and the Turano Family each funded $1,000 scholarships.
The total cash prizes for the 2012 contest was $5,000, with Leonora’s second award having been increased from $750 to $1,000. The fund will grow by another $1,000 next year after it was announced at this year’s banquet that longtime master of ceremonies and judge John Rizzo and his wife, Jan, would fund another scholarship.
If more people from the community step up to the plate with funding, along with the continued yeoman work of Darrell Marchioretto and Nancy Cometa, this contest will become more significant than ever. That means more contestants (including many from out of state), and a potentially larger venue to hold the concert and banquet to accommodate larger audiences. I’d say that’s not a bad problem to have!