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home : news : news May 22, 2019

3/19/2019 12:42:00 PM
Andrew René Wins Heafner-Williams Vocal Competition
Vale's own Alexandria McNeely earns encouragement grant
First-prize winner was baritone Andrew René.(Photos Courtesy Heafner-Williams VC)

First-prize winner was
baritone Andrew René.

(Photos Courtesy Heafner-Williams VC)


(Top) Tenor James Smidt (left) took home second-place honors, and third place was a tie between mezzo-soprano Kathleen Felty (middle) and baritone Adrian Smith (right).
(Bottom) Baritone Edward Bland (left) and Lincoln County’s own Alexandria McNeely (right) received encouragement grants.

(Top) Tenor James Smidt (left) took
home second-place honors, and third
place was a tie between mezzo-soprano
Kathleen Felty (middle) and
baritone Adrian Smith (right).

(Bottom) Baritone Edward Bland (left) and
Lincoln County’s own Alexandria McNeely
(right) received encouragement grants.

Thomas Lark
Staff Writer

LINCOLNTON, N.C.––It was a hard decision.

That’s how Carolyn Heafner of Lincolnton, veteran opera star and organizer of the namesake Heafner-Williams Vocal Competition, put it Monday. But now the results are in for this past weekend’s annual competition, and the first-prize winner was baritone Andrew René.            

Tenor James Smidt took home second-place honors, and third place was a tie between mezzo-soprano Kathleen Felty and baritone Adrian Smith. Baritone Edward Bland and Lincoln County’s own Alexandria McNeely received encouragement grants.

“It was a tough one to call, with all the talent we had,” Heafner said. “The semi-finals were sensational. We could have had another six from that group––there were 17 in all––to have a totally different second set of finals! The judges were having a hard time with decisions but judged wisely and fairly. It was an unusual final round, in that we had four men and two women. We had the largest number of men ever. It makes things very interesting, that it is never the same from one year to the next.”

René, Smidt and Felty are all affiliated with the North Carolina School of the Arts and its A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute in Winston-Salem. McNeely, Smith and Bland are veterans of the vocal performance school at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory.

René has participated in numerous vocal competitions and professional engagements, including performances with the Virginia Opera Association, the Bay View Music Festival, Opera Raw, Piedmont Opera, the Fletcher Opera Institute and the Princeton Festival. This year, he will play Sam in Trouble in Tahiti, Dandini in La Cenerentola and Golaud in Impressions de Pelléas.

The summer of 2015 marked René’s third year at the Bay View Music Festival, where he performed the rôle of Marcello in their production of Puccini's La Bohème. In the summer of 2017, he returned to perform as Escamillo in Carmen. His previous rôles include John Sorel in Menotti’s The Consul, the Pirate King in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, Guglielmo in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Riolobo in Catàn’s Florencia en el Amazonas, Harlequin in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and the title rôle in Verdi’s Falstaff.

René recently earned his undergraduate degree from Capital University, where he studied with Élise DesChamps and Brian Banion. The baritone is pursuing a master of music degree at the Fletcher Opera Institute.

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Smidt most recently performed with the GLOW (Greenville, S.C. Light Opera Works) Lyric Theatre as Rev. Samuel Parris in The Crucible and Marco Palmieri in The Gondoliers for the 2017 summer festival season. This season, he will sing Sam in scenes from Susannah, Prince Ramiro in La Cenerentola and Pelléas in Impressions de Pelléas on the main stage.

In the spring of 2017, Smidt completed his graduate studies in opera performance at the Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland, under the direction of Craig Kier and as a student of Carmen Balthrop. Other operatic rôles and scenes performed include Orphée and Pluton in Orphée aux Enfers, the Male Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia, the First Armored Man in Die Zauberflöte, Max Schmelling in Shadowboxer, Romeo in Romeo et Juliette, Elvino in La Sonnambula, Dr. Caius in Falstaff, Ferrando in Così fan Tutte and Scaramuccio in Ariadne auf Naxos. 

In the summers of 2015 and ’16, Smidt was a student at the Chautauqua Institute, under the direction of Marlena Malas. There he collaborated in recital with Mikael Eliasen and Craig Rutenberg.

Felty hails from Lubbock, Texas. She is a fellow at the Fletcher Opera Institute, pursuing a master of music degree. She apprenticed at the Santa Fe Opera and has progressed from there.

This past autumn, Felty made her North Carolina Opera concert début and her Dayton (Ohio) Opera début. She is a four-time winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She will join the Ryan Opera Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago for this year’s season.

In January, 2016, Felty competed in the Metropolitan Opera National Council (or MONC) Auditions, where she was the New Mexico District Winner, and she won second place in the Rocky Mountain Regional Finals. In 2017, she was the MONC North Carolina District Winner. She was a recipient of the 2017 Encouragement Award from the Heafner-Williams Vocal Competition and a 2017 fellow in the Ravinia-Steans Music Institute Program for Singers. 

Felty has performed as the Composer in the Fletcher Opera Institute’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos in 2017, Paula in Fletcher’s production of Florencia en el Amazonas in 2017 and the Zia Principessa in Texas Tech Opera’s production of Suor Angelica in 2014. She has performed scenes from Gianni Schicchi, The Marriage of Figaro, Norma and La Cenerentola. Her solo concert work includes Händel’s Messiah, Duruflé’s Requiem and Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy.” 

An alumna of Texas Tech University, Felty earned a bachelor of business administration in marketing and a bachelor of music in vocal performance.

Smith, a Hickory native, has been hailed for what one critic called his “big bronze voice” and commanding stage presence. He has garnered acclaim for performances across the country.

Of his Count Monterone in the North Carolina Opera production of Rigoletto, critics said, “Adrian Smith’s Monterone poured out imposing tone in his Rigoletto’s outrage against the Duke.” Of a performance of La Fanciulla del West, critics said, “Adrian Smith’s well-voiced Larkens was memorably affecting.” 

He has performed in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the Choral), Brahms’s German Requiem, Händel’s Messiah, Bach’s Mass in B Minor and in innumerable other productions. He is a past prize-winner in the Heafner-Williams Competition. In 2016, he earned first-place honors in the South Carolina District of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

Bland is a junior at Lenoir-Rhyne. According to writer Barbara Jolly Deakle of The Morganton News-Herald, Bland is majoring in vocal performance as a classical baritone. He is a member of the college’s choir and the College Singers, a separate outfit of 12 vocalists, known for its a cappella performances. Bland has been a singer for his entire life, though he didn’t join a choir until his high school years.

“Being in the choir has been a wonderful experience,” he said recently. “We are a group of 60-plus. We don’t only sing a cappella. We also sing large choral works, art music and other forms of choral music.”

A big fan of Negro spirituals, Bland is a huge believer in the power of music.

“There’s not anything more uplifting than a good, old-fashioned spiritual,” he told Deakle. “We sing a piece called, ‘At the Round Earth’s Imagin’d Corners,’ which is based on a poem by the popular metaphysical poet, John Donne. It’s my favorite one on our program. Not only is the music superb, but the text is also.”

The choir has traveled throughout America and abroad on tours, mission trips and worship events.

“We have had the opportunity to travel all up and down the Eastern Seaboard, into Florida, Georgia and many other states,” Bland said. “That’s just while I’ve been here. We’ll be traveling to Ireland this summer, and I’m incredibly excited for that opportunity.”

And Heafner recently extolled McNeely for her abundant ability.

“Alexandria is a bit of a rare bird,” she remarked. “She studies with Judith Burbank at Lenoir-Rhyne University. She started there with the Lenoir-Rhyne Youth

Last summer, McNeely traveled to Urbania, Italy, where she took part in the city’s famous opera workshops. She performed in various Italian opera scenes, as Heafner informed. 

“She is a marvelous budding talent,” Heafner added.

McNeely is the daughter of Crystal Burns Sargent. A Lincolnton-based hairstylist, Sargent recently sang her daughter’s praises.

“She is amazing,” she said, “and I’m beyond proud she is mine! She goes to college full-time, typically taking 19 credit hours each semester; holds down a job; is a member of the honor society; sings in the community choir like an angel; and travels all over, auditioning for grad school. She got called by 10 of them! She is super-dependable, generously and genuinely loving and caring towards her friends and family, and best of all, she loves to hang out with her mom! I love you to the moon and back again, sweetheart!”


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