Chamber Music Northwest Orion Quartet The Old Church Portland Oregon

Aquilon Festival and the future of opera

The Oregon wine country music festival's Young Artists program is helping young opera singers get a leg up on their careers.


Caroline Cook, performing in the Young Artists Showcase at the Aquilon Music Festival. Photo: Gabe Braukman

On Saturday, July 8, a small crowd made their way into the Delkin Recital Hall on the Linfield University campus, filling most of the wood-paneled hall’s 75-plus seats. The people were gathering for the Young Artists Showcase, one of the events of this year’s Aquilon Music Festival, and a chance for young operatic artists to show all of the effort they have been placing into their craft.  

Housed on the Linfield campus in McMinnville and with events at several nearby wineries, the Aquilon Music Festival is both a celebration of the history of opera and an investment in its future. Aquilon will continue with several performances and events through July 22, including four performances of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” July 19-22 at Lady Hill Winery in nearby St. Paul. 

Max Alexander Cook, digging into the expressiveness of the music. Photo: Gabe Braukman

But the beating heart of the festival is the Young Artists Program, in which operatic singers early in their careers — typically either seeking or actively in graduate programs — train with industry professionals over the course of several weeks. This year, in addition to participants from across the United States, the festival also has visitors from China and Italy.

“It’s a really beautiful way to tell a story,” said Max Alexander Cook, a young artist from Richmond, Virginia, who is seeking graduate programs after receiving his undergraduate degree from Oberlin College. “With opera, they’re telling the story as beautifully as possible, or as ugly as possible for the ugly parts of the story. The amount of expressiveness you can put into telling a story musically, it’s a wonderful way to get the point across.”

Romani guitar virtuoso Vadim Kolpako (left) and Aquilon Festival director and singer Anton Belov performed last week at Lumos Winery near Philomath. Photo courtesy Aquilon Music Festival

The young singers’ typical day starts with a movement class in the morning, before masterclasses with industry experts — including among others Metropolitan Opera veteran Richard Zeller, notable sopranos Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs and Susan Hinshaw, and festival Director Anton Belov, a baritone vocalist and associate professor of music at Linfield — and ends with rehearsals that lead into the evening. 

The Young Artists Showcase had each student take the floor for a song of their choosing. The selections presented showed the vast variety of moods that opera can elicit. Some songs were tragic, others comedic. One highlight was “Ninni,” from Selman Ada’s “Ali Baba ve Kirk Haramiler” (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves) performed by Nina Mutalifu, who cited her cultural background as being part of a Turkish minority in China. 

Chris Fistonich, singing the Toreador Song from “Carmen.” Photo: Gabe Braukman

The night ended with Chris Fistonich’s performance of Georges Bizet’s “Votre toast je peux vous le rendre,” perhaps better known as the Toreador March, from the opera “Carmen.” It began with him revealing himself as part of the audience the entire show, before giving an enthusiastic performance with audience participation. 

“I was really into musical theater in high school, and the first couple years of college,” said Will Schlott, who came from Pullman, Washington, and is in his first gap year after graduating from Washington State University. “I found myself really drawn to the scores where there were a lot of strings, and really heightened drama, so I was introduced to opera by my first voice teacher in college. It took a couple of tries before I really caught the bug, but once I did, there was no going back.”

Jacob Stucki singing the Young Artists Showcase. Photo: Gabe Braukman

While several of the festival’s events have already come and gone, there is still time to participate. This Saturday and Sunday, July 15-16, feature vineyard galas at Archer Vineyard (sold out) and Youngberg Hill Winery respectively, and next week features four performances of the opera “Don Giovanni,” the festival’s main event. 

Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” will be hosted at Lady Hill Winery in Saint Paul Wednesday through Saturday, July 19-22. Tickets are still available, and are priced at $35. The opera is staged, choreographed, and features a 20-piece chamber orchestra led by the international conductor and pianist Michael Recchiuti. 

At the end of the Young Artists Showcase, festival director Belov had a few words to say: “I’m just amazed at the talent and perseverance of these people. It makes me so hopeful about the future of our crazy art form of opera.”

Gabe Braukman is a fourth-year new media, journalism, and film student at Oregon State University. With a particular passion for game design, Gabe has always had an interest in analyzing all the media he has come across. In his free time, Gabe is often hiking, creating videos, or catching up on sleep.

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