January 11, 2023

The inaugural Duncan Williams Voice Competition at MSM on February 3 showcases rising Black and Latinx singers

The Duncan Williams Voice Competition for Black and Latinx singers celebrates newcomers with exceptional singing talent. The 18 finalists will perform with full orchestra on February 3 in MSM’s Neidorff-Karpati Hall; an awards ceremony will follow the concert. The event is hosted by mezzo-soprano and MSM alumna J’Nai Bridges (BM ’09).

The competition is presented by New York City Opera and the Manhattan School of Music. Alexa Smith, MSM alumna and current Associate Vice President for Strategic Innovation and Special Initiatives, is the founding artistic director of the competition; she sits down with us to talk about this landmark voice competition.

Tell us about the competition; why is it important?

Alexa: The Duncan Williams Voice Competition was conceived with the goal of creating a barrier-free competition for Black and Latinx singers. There is a powerful sense of intersectionality between these two underrepresented groups. We wanted to see what might happen if they were able to be a part of a competition where they didn’t have to worry about paying to travel to an expensive city, spend funds on creating an audition video, and get the opportunity to bring their whole artistic selves to our stage.

Tell us about the competition’s namesakes.

Alexa: Todd Duncan and Camilla Williams were the first two Black singers to grace the stage of New York City Opera when they debuted there in the 1940s. This was a huge risk for New York City Opera, and it happened a decade before Marian Anderson would sing in Ballo at the Met Opera. I didn’t learn about them until Michael Capasso (General Director of New York City Opera) told me about them in 2017. It was frustrating to me that I hadn’t learned their names until so late in my career. But now, everyone will know them.

The competition is a partnership between MSM and New York City Opera; can you tell us about this partnership?

Alexa: I feel lucky that both institutions signed on right away to work together to bring this competition to life. We worked together on a proposal for the Sphinx Organization in order to fund the inaugural year. City Opera has been incredibly generous in helping us organize the competition, and their music director, Constantine Orbelian, will conduct MSM’s orchestra for the finals concert on February 3rd. MSM will play host to the competition week with our students playing each singer’s arias in the finals.

“We want the whole artist to come to the stage. When you have that freedom, you can do anything.”

There are 18 finalists in the competition. How were they selected?

Alexa: We received nearly 300 applications from around the world. The singers sent audition videos and also submitted personal statements answering questions such as, “What do you love to do when you are not singing?” and “Tell us about a time you wanted to give up and what made you keep going.” We want the whole artist to come to the stage. When you have that freedom, you can do anything.

Tell us about the inaugural judging panel.

Alexa: I feel lucky that we are able to host such a wonderful set of diverse judges. They include baritone Kenneth Overton, conductor Gil Rose, and National Sawdust Managing Director Ana de Archuleta. Also included is Chris Cano, the new Director of the Cafritz Young Artist Program and American Opera Institute at Washington National Opera, and a proud MSM alum. And lastly, the legendary Denyce Graves joins us fresh off the launch of her inspiring Shared Voices program for conservatory and HBCU singers.

Top, left to right: Denyce Graves and Ana de Archuleta; Bottom, left to right: Kenneth Overton, Chris Cano, and Gil Rose

What will competition day be like for audience members and for the participants?

Alexa: I hope it is a party! There is so much to celebrate, and I want the finalists to feel like they won just by being on our stage. For the audience, I expect cheering, dancing, and lots of ovations. No need to keep quiet in the house on February 3rd!

What are you most excited about with this competition?

Alexa: I can’t wait for the first downbeat. I’ve thought about this every day since the summer of 2021, and being able to see our hard work play out will be exhilarating.

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