Collegiate Vocal Competition

April 3, 2021 | 7:00 PM

Free LIVESTREAM at operagr.org

Congratulations to the winners of the 2021 Collegiate Vocal Competition!

Opera Grand Rapids is proud to announce its 2020/21 Collegiate Vocal Competition!

The 17th annual Collegiate Vocal Competition is an opportunity for college-level voice students to compete for cash prizes and receive feedback from adjudicators who themselves are acclaimed opera artists. Opera Grand Rapids brings world-class professionals into its adjudication process in order to give contestants meaningful instruction and critique.

The competition enters its second year in a new format: first-round applications are now submitted online, and 10 finalists will perform in the final-round concert at the Betty Van Andel Opera Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on April 3, 2021. This competition boasts the second-largest purse in the nation at nearly $25,000, awarded as follows:


First Place
Second Place
Third Place

Friends of the Opera Award

chosen by audience members during the final-round concert

10 Finalists will receive $500 to be used as a travel stipend


Yohji Daquio | Soprano

Boston Conservatory

Juliet Schlefer | Soprano

University of Michigan

Finnian Sagal | Bass-Baritone

University of California, Los Angeles

Megan Fleischmann | Soprano

Northwestern University

Amalia Crevani | Soprano

DePauw University

Hayden Smith | Tenor

Temple University

Alexandra Kzeski | Soprano

University of Michigan

Merissa Beddows | Soprano

Curtis Institute of Music

Riley Wells | Countertenor

Grand Valley State University

Claire Griffin | Soprano

University of North Carolina at Greensboro


Karim Sulayman | Tenor

Lebanese-American tenor Karim Sulayman has garnered international attention as a sophisticated and versatile artist, consistently praised for his sensitive and intelligent musicianship, riveting stage presence, and beautiful voice.

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The 2019 Best Classical Solo Vocal GRAMMY® Award winner, he continues to earn acclaim for his programming and recording projects, while regularly performing on the world’s stages in opera, orchestral concerts, recital and chamber music.

Highlights of the 2020-21 season include appearances at Carnegie Hall in his debut with Concerto Copenhagen, Chamber Music Pittsburgh, Eighth Blackbird, Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, and Brooklyn Art Song Society. He also reprises the role of Gawain in Doug Balliett’s Gawain and the Green Knight with Acronym Ensemble, returns to Frank London’s Ghetto Songs on a tour throughout Germany. Future seasons include his role debut as Prologue/Peter Quint in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, and the world premiere of David T. Little’s monodrama, What Belongs to You, written for Karim and Alarm Will Sound, based on Garth Greenwell’s acclaimed novel.

Recently Mr. Sulayman debuted at Stockholm’s Drottningholms Slottsteater creating the role of Claudio Monteverdi in the world premiere of Syskonen i Mantua. He also created the role of Albert for the world premiere of Laura Kaminsky’s Some Light Emerges at Houston Grand Opera. Mr. Sulayman has appeared with New York City Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, Florentine Opera and Chicago Opera Theater, as well as with the Chicago, Pittsburgh, and National Symphony Orchestras and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. He has been presented by the Elbphilharmonie, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and the Ravinia, International Bach, Aldeburgh, Casals, Aspen Music and Marlboro Music Festivals. His concerts and recordings have been broadcast nationally and internationally on NPR, American Public Media, BBC Radio 3 and WDR 3.

Sulayman’s thought provoking and innovative programming is highlighted in his growing discography which includes his debut solo album, Songs of Orpheus. Praised for his “lucid, velvety tenor and popstar charisma” (BBC Music Magazine), Karim won the 2019 GRAMMY® Award for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album. His second solo album, Where Only Stars Can Hear Us, a program of Schubert Lieder with fortepianist Yi-heng Yang, debuted at #1 on the Billboard Traditional Classical Chart and has received international critical acclaim, including being named “Critic’s Choice” by Opera News.

In visual media, Sulayman is featured in the ARTE documentary Leonard Bernstein – A Genius Divided, his performance of Bernstein’s Mass was broadcast on PBS Great Performances, and in the fall of 2020 he appears on the second season of the acclaimed series Dickinson on Apple TV+. In November 2016, Karim created a social experiment/performance art piece called I Trust You, designed to build bridges in a divided political climate. A video version of this experiment went “viral” on the internet, and was honored as a prizewinner at the My Hero Film Festival. Karim has been invited to give talks and hold open forums with student and adult groups about inclusion, empathy, healing from racism, and activism through the arts.

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Anna Schubert | Soprano

A lover of new music and performance, Anna recently created the role of Bibi in the world premiere of Ellen Reid’s opera, p r i s m, which debuted at both LA Opera and at the Prototype Festival.

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Directed by James Darrah and conducted by both Julian Wachner and Daniela Candillari, the production garnered glowing reviews; Anna’s performance was described as “revelatory” (Catherine Womack, I Care If You Listen). p r i s m won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Music, which led to an album release of the opera on the Decca Gold label, as well as a successful run at Theatro Municipal de São Paulo.

Anna made her debut on the new music scene with the LA-based company The Industry, singing the ethereal soprano role of L in Anne LeBaron’s scenes from LSD: The Opera, first with Marc Lowenstein and Wild Up, and again a few months later in a staged version with Partch and under the baton of Christopher Rountree. In 2017, she made her debut with Opera Omaha singing the role of the Controller in their production of Jonathan Dove’s Flight, where she was pleased to collaborate again with conductor Christopher Rountree and for the first time with director James Darrah. She then made her soloist debut with Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil in Bernstein’s Mass, directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer and choreographed by Laurel Jenkins. That production inspired a remount at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, where she reprised her role under the baton of Louis Langrée.

Anna also performs actively as a dynamic concert soloist, embracing a wide variety of repertoire. Highlights include Orff’s Carmina Burana; Handel’s Laudate Pueri; and Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate, Requiem, Vesperae solennes de confessore, and Mass in C Minor. Anna is also particularly well-known for her masterful Messiah solos; in 2013, she made her LA Master Chorale debut as a soloist in Handel’s Messiah for their 50th anniversary season at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Since then, her soloist credits with the Master Chorale have included Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Gubaidulina’s Canticle of the Sun, a version of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast staged by Trevore Ross, Handel’s Israel in Egypt, and several performances of Messiah. In 2016, Anna was one of 21 Master Chorale singers to perform in a new staged production of Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro, directed by Peter Sellars and conducted by Grant Gershon, which the LA Times lauded as “a major accomplishment for the LA Master Chorale” and “a major accomplishment for music history.” In 2018, Lagrime launched a worldwide tour, and over the next year, Anna performed the piece at the Ravinia Festival, the Salzburg Festival, and in Australia, Mexico, England, France, Germany, and several U.S. states.

Outside the world of classical vocals, Anna enjoys a stimulating career as a session singer. Her voice appears in various film and TV soundtracks, including The Lion King (2019), Mulan (2020), Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of SkywalkerCall of the WildCreedMinions, and her solo soprano vocals can be heard dramatically soaring over orchestra and choir in the films Birds of Prey (2020) and Keanu (2016).

Anna attended Chapman University as a Provost Scholar, where she studied voice with renowned soprano Carol Neblett and pursued her Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance. With Opera Chapman, she performed the roles of Suor Genovieffa (Suor Angelica), Madame Herz (The Impresario), and Pamina (Die Zauberflöte). At the age of 19, Anna attended the Aspen Summer Music Festival and School on a full scholarship, where she sang in scenes from The Tender LandDie Zauberflöte, and Mark Adamo’s Little Women. Her experience in Aspen, where she studied in the Mozart & 20th Century group, ignited her passion for new music, which she carried back with her to California. In her final years at Chapman University, Anna received the encouragement award from the Palm Springs Opera Guild, placed as a Top 5 finalist in Classical Singer’s Undergraduate Vocal Competition, and received the Bramlage Opera Award from the Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music.

When she is not singing, Anna can usually be found outside somewhere, hiking and daydreaming, or inside somewhere, eating desserts. Pre-pandemic, she would occasionally wander into a karaoke bar and try to channel Pat Benatar. But traversing our present-day dystopia, she has focused her attention toward honing her recording and editing skills, and brainstorming ways to help shape our musical landscape into something sustainable, accessible, and equitable.

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Leslie Dunner | Conductor

Dr. Leslie B. Dunner is currently Conductor of the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra. He is also Interim Artistic Director of the South Shore Opera Company, where he has been Music Director since 2014, and Resident Conductor of New Jersey’s Trilogy: An Opera Company since 2018.

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His stirring performances with the Long Beach Opera of Anthony Davis’ historical work The Central Park Five received the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Music.

Dr. Dunner served as Music Director of the Joffrey Ballet and Music Director for the symphony orchestras of Annapolis, Dearborn, and Nova Scotia. He spent eleven seasons at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO), first as Assistant, then Associate, and finally as Resident Conductor, while serving concurrently as Music Director of the DSO’s youth orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Civic Orchestra. Besides holding principal conducting positions at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Harlem Festival Orchestra, and Louisville Ballet, he undertook a season as Interim Music Director of the Orquesta Filarmónica de Jalisco in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Dr. Dunner’s guest engagements with major orchestras include two years with the Chicago Symphony and five with the New York Philharmonic as Cover Conductor, where he also assisted during a four-week European tour. He has appeared with such distinguished ensembles as the Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, San Francisco, and Seattle Symphonies, the Cleveland, Minnesota, and Philadelphia Orchestras, as well as orchestras in Canada, Mexico, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ukraine, Russia, and South Africa. An avid ballet conductor, Dr. Dunner has taken the podiums of the American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet, Michigan Opera Theatre, Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, Birmingham Royal Ballet, and South African Ballet Theatre, among others.

In addition to his professional conducting work, Dr. Dunner is a dedicated music educator. He began his career in music education as Assistant Professor at Minnesota’s Carleton College and has continued to lead youth orchestras throughout his career. The first American prize-winner in the Arturo Toscanini International Conducting Competition, he is also a recipient of the Leonard Bernstein American Conductors Award and the NAACP’s James Weldon Johnson and Distinguished Achievement Awards.

When not conducting, Dr. Dunner continues to perform as a clarinetist.

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Robert Byrens | Accompanist

As one of the region’s most sought after collaborative pianists, Robert Byrens’ playing has been described as “beautifully expressive with a singing tone and impeccable articulation.”

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He served as artist faculty pianist and vocal coach at Grand Valley State University for thirty years, retiring in 2020. Robert was the rehearsal pianist and vocal coach for Opera Grand Rapids from 1993 until his retirement in 2018, but he enjoys occasional return engagements. In 2016, he partnered with Nancy Steltmann, former principal cellist of the Grand Rapids Symphony, to form “Il Duo Lirico”.

Robert has performed in vocal master classes for many renowned singers and pianists including Phyllis Curtin, Elly Ameling, Gerard Souzay, Jessye Norman, Martin Katz, and Robert Spillman.  As a professional violist, he has been a member of the Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, South Bend, and Battle Creek Symphonies. He has performed in summer festivals at the Blossom Music Center, Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute, Fontana Chamber Arts, Garth Newel and the Chamber Music Festival of Saugatuck where he was Associate Artistic Director and performer from 1993 through 2008.

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We are pleased that OGR Board Member, attorney, and soprano, Madelaine Lane will be joining us again this year as our host for the evening!



October 1, 2020

Application opens

February 15, 2021

EXTENDED! Application deadline

February 17-26, 2021

Independent review by panel of judges

March 1, 2021

Finalists notified

April 3, 2021

Final-round concert in Grand Rapids, Michigan


  • Entrants must be enrolled as an undergraduate at a higher-education institution in the United States as of February 15, 2021.
  • Entrants must be under the age of 25 as of February 15, 2021.

First-Round Application

Contestants must submit several materials for the first round:

1. Video recordings of two arias

    • At least one piece must be in a language other than English.

2. Written response to the given prompt

    • 2020 has forced artists—especially singers—to face unprecedented challenges, from the COVID-19 pandemic to a racial reckoning. What have you done to make your art relevant and accessible, and how are you using your art to better the lives of others?

3. Application fee, payable online through Acceptd

4. Résumé
5. Headshot
6. Photocopy of an ID with date of birth clearly displayed

Need a pianist?

Arlene Shrut | Collaborative Pianist

Contact Arlene to make a piano recording at arlene@arleneshrut.com.

As a collaborative pianist, Arlene has collaborated with Renée Fleming, Thomas Hampson, Angela Meade, Isabel Leonard, Carla Rae Cook, Michael Fabiano, Anton Belov, Alissa Deeter, and Takaoki Onishi.

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She regularly serves as official pianist and judge for international opera competitions sponsored by The Gerda Lissner Foundation, the Licia Albanese Puccini Foundation, The Giulio Gari Foundation, The Loren Zachary Society, The Marcello Giordani Foundation, and the Fritz and Lavinia Jensen Foundation.

While many of Arlene’s professional activities focus on collaborations with singers, she is in demand with instrumentalists as well, featuring engagements such as her NYC debut with the Yoav Chamber Ensemble, touring with the Grand’Arte Trio, and as a finalist in the Munich International Competition in the violin-piano duo category with Julie Rosenfeld of the Colorado String Quartet, as well as winning the outstanding pianist award at the Music Academy of the West. In January 2014 Arlene teamed with pianist Anna Shelest in a 4-hand version of the Brahms Requiem with Voices of Ascension, under the baton of Dennis Keene, featuring soloists Martha Guth and Richard Zeller. Arlene has recorded for Dorian, Albany, Summit, Centaur, and Orion labels. Her discography includes works from the classical canon and recording premieres by contemporary composers.

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