Montreal soprano Sasha Djihanian won the top prize at the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio Competition in Toronto Monday evening, beating finalists from across Canada.

Djihanian wins $5,000 and a chance at a spot in the COC Ensemble, a pool of talented singers who take part in COC productions throughout the year.

Other singers who stood out:

  • Soprano Claire de Sévigné of Montreal won the second prize of $3,000.
  • Tenor Owen McCausland of Saint John won the third prize of $1,500.
  • Soprano Lindsay Barrett of Sudbury, Ont., won the $1,500 Audience Choice Award.

Ten finalists were selected to sing in the final competition from more than 160 singers who auditioned in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and New York.

This is the first year the COC auditions have been staged before a live studio audience, making the competition similar to the prestigious Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in New York. Djihanian, who trained at Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal in Montreal, was a finalist in the Met competition.


Sudbury, Ont., soprano Lindsay Barrett won the Audience Choice Award. (Chris Hutcheson/Canadian Opera Company)

On Monday night, she won over the COC judges with her performance of Bizet’s Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante from Carmen and Mozart’s Deh vieni, non tardar from Le nozze di Figaro.

Djihanian said performing before audience helped her overcome her nerves and sing her best.

"It actually made it so much easier because it was really a performance," she told CBC News.

"Whenever I audition I try to treat the audition as a performance, not as an audition, because when you're thinking about an audition you can get intimidated you can get ...nervous. But what we performers do is perfrom for audiences and share that special joy and love we have for music with an audience so when you can do that, that's the greatest gift of all."

COC general director Alexander Neef said the field of singers was impressive and Djihanian stood out for the qualities she brought to her work.

"Her second aria, from the Marriage of Figaro, for the jury was certainly the most exquisite singing of the evening and she has that personality that we think will take her far," he said.

The judges were looking for quality of voice and technical ability to sing, but also a certain star quality, he said, describing it as "that little thing that actually turns a singer into an artist."

Winning the competition doesn’t mean the aspiring opera stars will be selected for the COC Ensemble, but it is a consideration in choosing new members, Neef told CBC News. The COC will announce its selection next month.

Joining the Ensemble Studio, which provides two years of training for aspiring artists, is often the beginning of a promising career. Distinguished graduates include Ben Heppner, Isabel Bayrakdarian, John Fanning, Wendy Nielsen, David Pomeroy, Joseph Kaiser, Lauren Segal and Krisztina Szabó.