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Every once in a while, you hear someone early in their career, and you know, you just know, they have the stuff for a great future. That was the experience last Friday for the lucky people who heard Monica Conesa, Soprano. Her collaborator at the piano was Lee Dougherty Ross.

Monica grew up a few miles south of here, in Venice, and was bitten by the Opera bug early on. The Sarasota Youth Opera Program (another of Sarasota’s Bright Lights) fed her dreams. Now she has just finished her conservatory training at the Manhattanville School in New York. At 23, she has already won several vocal competitions and appeared on some prestigious stages in this country and abroad.

Operatic voices are a breed apart. Developing the power to fill a 2,000-seat concert hall puts a lot of stress on the vocal mechanism; the mechanism itself in a young woman is still maturing through her twenties, usually not reaching full maturity until around age 30. Conesa’s voice is already showing commendable focus and power. Especially impressive to me was how she bridges the gap between chest voice and head voice...with her, there is no discernible gap. She just moves from her highest notes to her lowest – “changing gears,” as it were – as smoothly as the finest Mercedes. Monica reminds me of Maria Callas in her prime, only taller and prettier.

Conesa’s enunciation is crystalline. Singers, even those for whom English is the native tongue, often seem to have a harder time being understood while singing in English than in Italian or German; she sailed through all three with great clarity on this morning. Whether the listener understands the language or not, Conesa’s face alone tells the story. For me, her eyebrows were eloquent enough.

As a long-time, and just now re-affirmed, Male Chauvinist Pig, I can rhapsodize over her lovely oval face, the raven hair tumbling down to her waist, her slim figure, and the grace of her movements... but in the world of Grand Opera, these attributes are not all that common. Opera-goers are regularly challenged to believe that the 200-pound woman clomping around the stage in front of them is really a frail young woman dying of consumption, or a debutant who is turning every head at The Ball. Conesa will have no problem convincing them. With voice and appearance, she will convince them.

Appropriately, on this Valentine’s Day, her program consisted of love songs, by composers as disparate as Sigmund Romberg, George Gershwin, Robert and Clara Schumann, and three Latino writers of popular songs, Gabriel Ruiz, Consuelo Velasquez and Alvaro Carrillo. A very witty song by Celius Dougherty (no relation to Lee) dealt with definitions of Love (Tennis, anyone?) as found in a dictionary, and Franz Lehar’s “Yours is My Heart Alone” closed the announced program, but Conesa graced us with Puccini’s Mi Chiamano Mimi, a fitting finale.

I am certain, I just know, that someday, not too far off, Monica Conesa will sing an absolutely convincing Mimi on one of the really big stages...who will get her first, LaScala or the Met?

Once again proving she is one of the Great American Accompanists, Lee Dougherty Ross caught and matched every nuance, every inflection in Conesa’s musical story-telling. Ross caresses the piano, seducing it to her will as she shares and supports every emotion of the soloist. Aside from her sensitive accompanying, Lee has done much for our artistic community, with her ear for talent and her organizing ability. Surely, we will have to put up a statue soon. A tall, graceful one. With a big heart.

Photo credit: Carlene Cobb