If you want to hear some good live operas this weekend, you could fly to New York to catch "Pelleas et Melissande" at the Met. Or you could just catch a bus to the National Gallery auditorium to hear young, up-and-coming singers like Kristine Ciesinski, Yvette Matthews and Edmund Tolliver compete in the Metropolitan Opera's Middle Atlantic Regional Auditions.
On Friday 40 area singers between the ages of 18 and 33 will compete behind closed doors. The judges will pick the finalists who will perform in open-to-the-public auditions Saturday. The winner will go to New York for intensive training by Met coaches before competing with singers from other parts of the country. At stake are thousands of dollars in scholarships and a possible contract to sing at the Met.
It's risky to try to predict which singers will be among those to compete on Saturday. But Ciesinski, Matthews and Tolliver did place second, third and fourth, respectively, in last year's auditions.
You may have seen Ciesinski at The Office Health Club on M Street, where she worked as an exercise physiologist until she won second place in the competition last spring.
"Now all I do is sing," she says. "Things have snowballed."
Placing in the Met competition helped Ciesinski, 25, obtain a grant from the International Institute of Education to go to Geneva last summer to compete in the Concours de Musique. She took first prize in the women's singing competition there and toured cities in Switzerland and France as part of her prize. Returning home, she played a minor role in the Washington Opera Society production of "The Magic Flute" and sang as a soloist in "The Messiah" at Lincoln Center.
Among Ciesinski's favorite roles is that of the countess in "The Marriage of Figaro."
"Mozart fits my voice like a glove," says Ciesinski, who describes herself as "a heavy lyric soprano" -- a description that has nothing to do with her figure. "But I also like the Puccini heroines, and I would love to do Desdemona in 'Otello'."
Each singer must prepare five arias for the competition. The singer first performs one of his or her choice, and then the judges may request one or more of the others. Ciesinski's first choice will be "Leise, Leise," from "Der Freischutz" by Karl Maria von Weber.
Yvette Matthews, who placed third in last year's regional competition, will lead off with "Brangaena's Watch" from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde."
"I'm not really a Wagnerian mezzo yet, but I'm working on it," she says. "It's something you grow into -- a dark, rich, full sound --Right now I'm a lyric mezzo."
"I got into opera by accident," says Matthews, a Baltimorean. "Three years ago I was singing with an alumni choir from Coppin State College when a musician heard me and told me I should start working seriously."
At that time Matthews was teaching second grade in the Baltimore public schools. Now she teaches with the city's Head Start program, and performs in concerts and takes voice lessons on the side.
Edmund Tolliver, 30, of Silver Spring, who placed fourth in last year's auditions here, has been studying voice formally for about ten years. He comes from a musical family, and got hooked on opera at the age of nine, when he saw a touring company perform "Cosi Fan Tutte."
"I enjoy singing, but I also enjoy what I'm doing now," which is being an assistant professor in the music department of the University of Maryland. "I'm not a frustrated singer, but of course I'd love to join an opera company and play major roles."
In the competition, Tolliver will lead off with "Aleko's Cavatina" from Rachmaninoff's opera "Aleko."
Is he nervous about the competition?
"Terribly nervous.In fact, the day of any competition, there are always a thousand other things I'd rather do."