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SOU opera singers off to Carnegie Hall

When Southern Oregon University students Beatriz Abella and Mandee Light submitted an audition tape in October for the American Protégé International Music Talent Competition, they weren't expecting much.

Small-town college students just don't win international competitions, going toe-to-toe against thousands of young musicians from around the world for the opportunity to perform in prestigious New York venues.

But eight days later, they received an email informing them they had been chosen as first-place winners and would be performing in Carnegie Hall on Dec. 18.

"The email read, 'Congratulations on being selected from an extremely large field of applicants,' " Abella said. "I'll remember that line for the rest of my life."

The pair, who call themselves "Duo SOU," were among 34 first-place winners, and the only vocalists from the U.S. They will perform a duet together at Carnegie Hall in New York City on Dec. 18.

"It feels like a daydream," said Light, 20. "I mean, who gets to go to Carnegie Hall? Especially if you're from Oregon."

This will be Abella's second performance at Carnegie Hall; she sang there in April after winning second place in a nationwide competition hosted by the National League of Performing Arts.

"Back home, everybody's like 'Oh, Trixie, she's made it,' " said Abella, a first-generation Filipino-American from Juneau, Alaska. "For me, because I'm Filipino, how many Filipinos get to go to Carnegie Hall, and twice in one year?"

Abella and Light started preparing for the audition at the end of September. They performed a sequence from Engelbert Humperdink's "Hansel and Gretel" opera, and decided to have some fun by dressing up as the characters and performing a slapstick routine, chasing each other around the stage, playing a game of leapfrog, and having a broom fight.

"We figured if we did something lighthearted and fun, it would make us stand out," Light said.

Both women have an extensive musical background.

Abella, a mezzo-soprano, is a senior music business and music performance double major. She came to SOU at the urging of music professor and piano virtuoso Alexander Tutunov, who encouraged her to apply after hearing her sing at a cousin's piano recital.

Since then, Abella has been in the choir of "Johnny Johnson," a production put on last year by the SOU theater department, was one of six SOU students to perform at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre and was the only female freshman in SOU's Chamber Choir to tour Germany and the Czech Republic. She also has been invited to Guanajuato, Mexico, over spring break to give two performances in collaboration with Mexican music students.

Abella decided to pursue music after participating in a high school production of "Les Miserables."

"In May of 2008, that was my senior year in high school, I was playing the understudy for Fantine in 'Les Miserables,'" said Abella. "The music swelled, and I was taking my first breath to sing and I looked out at the lights, at the quiet audience, and thought, 'This is what I want to do.'"

"I was in denial about it for a long time," she said. "I was even a nursing major for three days. "… It's funny how you can deny yourself of your most basic dream."

Light has an impressive musical background as well. A junior music performance major, the soprano graduated from North Medford High School in 2009.

"I've always loved to perform," she said. "All throughout high school that's what I wanted to do.

"When I got to college I had to choose between music and history," she said. "I applied for a music scholarship and told myself if I got the scholarship, I would do music. I got the scholarship."

Light has been heavily involved with the Rogue Valley Opera. She was a member of the chorus in "La Traviata," "The Marriage of Figaro," and will be performing in "The Elixir of Love" this spring. She beat out all the upperclassmen for the soprano solo in SOU's performance of Faure's "Requiem," and even sang opera while riding a Segway in the Jacksonville Christmas Parade.

"It pretty much is my life," she said. "When you're performing, there's really just this different feeling, a sort of out-of-this-world experience."

The turning point in her musical development was when she studied abroad in Vienna, Austria, last winter through one of SOU's foreign exchange programs. She studied with renowned vocalists Barbara Bonney and Maria Droulou, which she said solidified her passion for music.

Abella and Light recognized the contributions of their mentors, including Willene Gunn, formerly of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and teachers at SOU.

"We would be nothing without our teachers," said Abella. "We're really lucky because (the department) is really like a big family."

Nils Holst is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at holstn@students.sou.edu.

Southern Oregon University Mandee Light junior, left, and senior Beatriz Abella and will be performing at Carnegie Hall singing from Hansel and Gretel on Dec. 18. They were chosen in the American ProtÈgÈ International Music Talent Competition. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo - Bob Pennell