A Celebration of Vocal Mastery: The History and Spirit of AVA’s Giargiari Bel Canto Competition

Written by AVA Administrative Associate Stephen Trygar.
Cover photo by Don Valentino.

This year, the Giargiari Bel Canto Competition is celebrating its 42nd Anniversary as part of our annual opera season at the Academy of Vocal Arts. The competition was founded in 1979 by Raymond F. Giargiari in memory of his father Oreste A. Giargiari and brother Arturo Giargiari. Both Oreste and Arturo were avid opera fans, and their devotion to AVA has been immortalized in a way that celebrates both their lives and the art of opera itself.

Yihan Duan singing “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” from Manon Lescaut at Giargiari 2019. Photo by Don Valentino.

“Bel canto” is an Italian phrase that translates to “beautiful singing”. Regular opera enthusiasts may recognize the term bel canto from the early 19th-century Italian opera style, including operas such as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Bellini’s Norma. However, if you have been attending AVA’s Giargiari Bel Canto Competition for some time, you may be wondering why arias such as “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut or Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt have made it onto the program in years past. Originally, the competition only allowed artists to choose arias from operas belonging to the bel canto style, but after a few years into the competition, Mr. Giargiari mended the confusion that had been made. As his father and brother were fans of all types of opera, he wanted the term bel canto to be taken literally. The event was to be a night of “beautiful singing”, no matter what style, opera, or composer the arias came from.

That very sentiment still lives on to today. Our Resident Artists, with assistance from the competition’s music director and pianist Danielle Orlando, work hard every year to find the perfect aria that matches their voice and to ensure their audience will have a night they’ll never forget. As the competition’s music director for over twenty years, Ms. Orlando has witnessed class after class of our Resident Artists cheer each other on and congratulate each other on incredible performances. While the Giargiari Bel Canto Competition is a contest at its core, it has become more than that. This competition helps our Resident Artists become better singers and performers. Every aria they sing, every glamorous gown and perfectly tied bow-tie, every minute of rehearsal in preparation of the event is all for the betterment of these artists, creating fully-formed opera singers. “While I have only competed twice so far,” says fourth-year Resident Artist Renée Richardson, “both experiences have brought something different to the table, but I grew so much from each one.”

Oliver Sewell singing “Seul sur la terre” from Dom Sébastien at Giargiari 2019. Photo by Don Valentino.

The Giargiari Bel Canto Competition has also been a favorite of our audience as well. In 1990, eleven years after the start of the competition, President and Artistic Director K. James McDowell installed a third prize into the competition, making the performance more engaging for the audience. This new Audience Favorite Award allowed the audience to choose their favorite performance of the evening, and the winner of this prize would be announced together with the First and Second Prize winners. The first recipient of this new Audience Favorite Award was tenor Richard Troxell, who was also the recipient of that evening’s First Prize. In years to come, a fourth prize would be added. Starting in 2003, listeners of a broadcasted performance on WRTI  90.1 FM were able to weigh in on their favorite singers as well. Occasionally, a Resident Artist may win two or three prizes, but occasionally there will be a year where there is a different singer for each of the four awards. The Giargiari Competition has always been believed to be one of the most accessible of our yearly events, and occurrences such as four different winners for four total prizes only prove that the Giargiari Bel Canto Competition is one for all to enjoy.

Being the first performance of our season after the New Artist Recital every year, the halls of AVA reawaken every September with the breathtaking music being prepared for this event. This year, being the first performance in front of a live audience in over a year and a half for some, AVA is brimming with excitement and anticipation. Our Spruce Street school is alive once again, filled with beautiful singing.

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