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UH Mezzo-Soprano Wins Top Prize at National Voice Competition

Kristin Lewis Foundation awards Naomi Brigell (MM Vocal Performance ’17) vocal training in Vienna.

In a bright Cougar red gown, University of Houston opera student Naomi Brigell (MM Voice Performance ’17) claimed the top prize at the 2017 Kristin Lewis Foundation Vocal Scholarship Competition. The competition, launched by Vienna-based lyrico-spinto soprano Kristin Lewis, attracts up-and-coming opera singers from colleges across the country. As this year’s winner, the foundation is sending Brigell on an all-expenses-paid trip to Vienna, Austria to pursue her singing education. During the weeklong intensive, she will study with leading professionals of the Vienna State Opera, including a coach and a stage director. She will also take lessons with Lewis’ personal voice teacher, operatic soprano Carol Byers.  

“It’s all pretty incredible,” she said, reflecting on the whirlwind experience at the competition. The competition stretched over two days from March 4 – 5, and included an audition, one-on-one coaching and a final concert in front of a live audience. Brigell and the 12 other semifinalists also got the chance to meet Kristin Lewis over the weekend. “She has such an interesting story — she took a different path than a lot of artists in the US, skipping the young artist level and going straight to Vienna to build a career. It was amazing talking to her about it in person.”

Brigell’s voice is classified as a mezzo-soprano, which is a lower female range that generally sits on the richer and darker end of the vocal spectrum. Her mentor at the Moores School of Music (MSM) Melanie Sonnenberg describes it as having “seamless line and an appealing warm timbre.” This distinction allows Brigell to play a diverse range of characters, including female and male roles, from which she has built a unique repertoire. This caught the attention of the competition’s panel of judges, which included Lorne Richstone of the University of Oklahoma, Diane Kesling of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and one of today’s leading bass opera singers, Morris Robinson. They asked her to perform two unusual selections — “Nancy’s Aria” from Friedrich von Flotow’s “Martha” and “Sharon’s Aria” from the contemporary opera “Elmer Gantry.”

“It was a little surprising that they selected the lesser-known pieces, but it worked,” she laughed.

Though Brigell is now rising to the forefront of vocal performance, her background is rooted in dance. When she first began studying at Boston University, she thought she would pursue a path in musical theatre, but along the way she changed course. 

“I’ve always enjoyed being on the stage, but I fell in love with opera,” she said. She had little exposure to opera and classical vocal music before college, but once she began exploring it she found a deep connection with the music. “I felt like I found a better fit for my voice.”

That discovery led her to UH Moores School of Music (MSM), where she studies with Sonnenberg. Over the past two years, Sonnenberg has enjoyed watching Brigell grow as a performer.

“Naomi works with steadfast focus and patience,” she said. “She can offer a distinctive mezzo-soprano voice because of her maturity and commitment.”

Brigell will be singing the role of nurse Gertrude in the Moores Opera Center’s upcoming production of “Romeo and Juliet.” The show premieres on April 7 at the Moores Opera House. For more information, visit the Moores Opera Center’s website.