Rising mezzo-soprano to sing in Festival of Chamber Music

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano’s star is rising, and fast.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano’s star is rising, and fast. Since her Metropolitan Opera debut three years ago, she’s sung with the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, at the Marlboro Music Festival and the St. Petersburg Palaces Music Festival in Russia.

On Wednesday, she’ll be in recital at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the International Festival of Chamber Music with her husband, Christopher Cano, at the piano. Her program, which she said was especially crafted for this concert, will include Dvo˘rák gypsy songs, Spanish folk songs from de Falla, sea songs by Elgar and folk songs from France’s Auvergne region that were compiled in five books by Joseph Canteloupe. These will be sung in Auvergne.

Cano’s success comes from having won the big one: the 2008 Metropolitan National Council Auditions when she was a green 23-year-old from St. Louis.

“I was overwhelmed,” she said. “It was dreamlike.”

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For Gazette music writer Geraldine Freedman’s review of this show, click here.

It was the culmination of several levels of competitions under the banner of the Metropolitan Opera auditions. Her first stop that February was at the district level, where she and 19 other singers from the Missouri area sang two of five arias they had prepared: one of their choice and one the judges chose.

‘A good showing’

“I was young, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself,” she said. “I was in my second year of a master’s program at Rice University in Houston. I wanted to make a good showing.”

She sang an aria from Barber’s “Vanessa,” a popular mezzo audition aria that she loved.

“I connected with the character, and it showed me off in a special light, and it was in English,” she said. The judges chose a Mozart aria from “La Clemenza di Tito.” Her other songs were by Strauss, Massenet and Handel, because singers need to display many styles, languages and characters.

After she won the district level, which included a cash prize — given to all winners at each level — she moved on to the regional level that had singers up to the age of 30 from Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas. She worked with the same five arias and tried to find more detail to present in each song. She won that level. Up to that point, she’d been working with a pianist whom she’d often worked with.

But at the semifinals level, she came to New York City, where she sang on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera with a pianist the Met provided. She was one of 40 singers. “The day began at 10 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m. There were five judges,” she said.

They chose eight singers for the finals and Cano was asked to stay the week. Of the five arias she was still working with, she would sing two — the Barber and the Mozart — with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra in a special concert.

To aid in her preparation, the Met gave her a coach/pianist to rehearse, a drama coach to stage the aria and a Q & A with Met star Stephanie Blythe, who had been through it all herself, Cano said. “We got the star treatment.”

On concert night, makeup and hair stylists dolled her up and she wore a new dress, she said. The guys all wore tuxes. She and the other singers each sang an aria and after a short intermission came back to sing the other aria.

“We’d been together all week, and I knew that everyone had tremendous promise. We were all young, talented and educated,” Cano said.

After she sang, she felt she’d sung her best.

“I was proud of myself for withstanding the pressure and I had accomplished what I had wanted to do. The decision was out of my hands,” she said.

Once her name was called and she was given $15,000, there was nothing to do but head back to Houston. It was March, and she wondered if that was it. She didn’t have to wait long.

Music director calls

“There was an email saying that James Levine wanted to audition me for the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program,” she said.

The program is separate from the auditions and Levine, the music director of the Met, chooses the singers. Those who are accepted into the three-year program get all the essentials, from vocal training to how to act, and are exposed to numerous options and opportunities. Cano sang four arias at the audition, which was unusual.

“Usually, you sing two, possibly three, arias,” she said, something she learned later. “Levine said very little. At one point, he got up from the middle of the theater and came down to the stage, seemed to ponder and then went back.”

Levine gave his approval. Cano returned to Houston to finish her master’s degree and then moved to New York City. The next year, she made her Met debut in some small roles in Mozart and Humperdinck operas, which is typical for all Lindemann singers, she said. The Met also strongly encourages all the singers to audition, whether it’s for competitions or management.

“Young singers need to compete for the money to pad their accounts — to pay for their lessons or to live comfortably,” Cano said, adding that prizes range from $5,000 to $20,000.

Over the next two years, she reaped several awards: the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Festival Prize, the Princeton University Concerts Prize, the 2009 Sullivan Foundation Award, the 2011 Sarah Tucker Study Grant and the biggest, the 2009 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, which gave her recitals at Merkin Hall in New York City and the Kennedy Center in Washington.

And best of all, she got married to Christopher Cano, a pianist she met a few years ago when she was a Gerdin Young Artist with Opera Theatre of St. Louis and he was on the vocal coaching staff.

“He’s helped me learn opera roles, and he’s an excellent musician. It’s the best possible world and a dream come true,” she said.

Christopher Cano currently is on the vocal coaching staff at the Manhattan School of Music.

Full schedule

In May, Jennifer Johnson Cano completed the Lindemann program and her schedule is already filled: 13 recitals this season, some recording and six months of performances at the Met in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” and two parts of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. She also has many auditions at European opera houses.

“Until you’re an established name or have a connection with an opera house, you sing auditions,” Cano said. “But now I’m auditioning for principal roles. I’m beyond young artists programs like I had in St. Louis.”

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