Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 28, 2010

Area singers are finalists at contest

Students sing Italian songs and arias

By Carol South
Special to the Record-Eagle

TRAVERSE CITY — Once again dominating the field, six singers from area high schools are finalists in the 16th annual Italian Songs and Arias Vocal Competition for Michigan High School Students.

This 60 percent showing — six out of ten finalists — for 2010 makes it 40 out of 70 finalists since 2004. This includes nine out of ten selected in 2008.

In addition, six of the competition's 15 top winners attended school in the region, including last year's Erik Wilson, a 2009 graduate of West Senior High. Other local high schools sending finalists to the Italian Songs and Arias Vocal Competition over the years include Central, St. Francis and Interlochen Arts Academy.

John Zaretti, president of the Verdi Opera Theater of Michigan, praises the region's parents, teachers, friends and schools for nurturing so many "gifted and motivated" students.

"They show a passion for singing, and what is also wonderful is the feeling that they are obviously passing a love of singing down to the next generation each year," Zaretti said.

Central High School has two finalists this year: senior Elleka Okerstrom and junior Tom Cilluffo. West High School will send one student, Jon Oakley, a junior, while finalists from Interlochen Arts Academy are Virginia Barney, Rigoberto Ernst and Nicole Heinen.

"This is very exciting because this is what I want to do," said Okerstrom, who will attend DaPauw University in the fall to study operatic performance. "Your technique is everything with this style of singing."

The finalists will perform on Sunday afternoon before an enthusiastic audience at the Italian American Cultural Society of Clinton Township, vying for a share of the $1,800 prize money. The Verdi Opera Theatre of Michigan sponsors the event with prizes provided by the Italian American Club of Livonia Charitable Foundation.

"These kids work really hard to qualify for this and other events throughout the year, like the 'Classical Singer' competition, Michigan Youth Arts Festival, recitals and Solo and Ensemble festivals," said Russ Larimer, choral director at West, adding of the Verdi competition: "It's a great way for them to hone their craft, and also a wonderful performance opportunity in front of an important audience."

Tami Grove, choral director at Central, noted that the repertoire presented is different from the students' typical signing fare.

"The Italian repertoire they are performing lends itself to dramatic interpretation, demonstrating healthy vocal technique and timeless tradition in the realm of classical music," she said.

Both Oakley and Okerstrom study privately with Jayne Sleder, with Oakley also planning to major in vocal performance in college and pursue an operatic career. This was Oakley's second attempt at the Italian songs and arias competition; both Okerstrom and Cilluffo tried in 2010 for the first time.

"I was definitely surprised, to get picked was surprising and very cool," Oakley said of being selected as a finalist. "I just think another year of maturity, allowing my voice to mature and just the repertoire that I was singing, made it easier for me to make it this time."

With a nod to his Italian heritage and the operatic genre, Cilluffo nevertheless is more drawn to musical theater. He learned of the competition the day before the early February deadline and quickly recorded an entry featuring songs by Italian composers Giuseppe Giordani and Bendetto Marcello.

"I've been performing both amateur and professionally for about eight years and this isn't really new, the opera, yes," said Cilluffo, who studies privately with Jeff Norris.

For more information on the Verdi Opera Theater of Michigan, see