SALT LAKE CITY — Even though he heard the announcers call his name, Jonah Hoskins had no idea he’d just won the biggest competition of his life.
The 23-year-old tenor had just sung in the last round of the National Council Auditions — a prestigious competition at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House that gave opera star Renee Fleming her big break in 1988; a contest that, if won, could launch Hoskins’ own opera career.
After the final round Sunday night, the singer’s name was the second one to be called. Sporting a new Brooks Brothers tuxedo, the Brigham Young University student walked onto the Metropolitan Opera stage. He was one of five winners, but it took him a while to figure that out. He thought maybe all of the singers had been invited out for a final bow.
“I couldn’t hear what they were saying very well backstage,” a laughing Hoskins told the Deseret News. “It was actually after they called out the third person that I asked (soprano Alexandria Shiner), who was standing next to me, ‘So what are they announcing right now?’ She said, ‘Winners! We won!’ And I was like, ‘Oh, OK, great!’”
Hoskins’ confusion shifted to excitement as he started processing that he’d just won $20,000 and was about to receive major exposure in the opera world.
To celebrate the once-in-a-lifetime moment, the tenor would’ve been fine eating takeout with his family at Manhattan’s historic Hudson Hotel — about a half-mile from the New York City opera house — where he was staying during the competition. But his family insisted on taking him to a nice Italian restaurant.
This was, after all, a career-defining moment for the budding tenor.
Developing a voice
Hoskins can’t think about this win without remembering the moment he first thought it could even be possible.
The tenor grew up singing in the Salt Lake Children’s Choir. But it wasn’t until he was 16 that the Saratoga Springs native began to seriously consider a music career. Up to that point, he had planned to follow in his mother’s footsteps and become a math teacher.
But at 16, he entered a high school music competition called Classical Singer. Though he didn’t win, Hoskins was awarded a scholarship to the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York.
“It made me realize that some people were excited about my voice even though I personally felt like it wasn’t that great,” he said. “It was helpful to have that outside view.”
Not everyone was impressed with Hoskins’ voice, though. On a feedback form, one judge had written — using all caps and several exclamation points — “You assaulted me with your voice!”
Now, seven years later, the biggest opera houses in the country heard Hoskins sing the famous French aria “Ah! Mes Amis” on Sunday night. The challenging piece — once a signature aria for Luciano Pavarotti — comes with a string of nine high C’s. But Hoskins went well beyond that number and even threw in a trill to a high D — an especially rare move for that piece.
“That’s kind of my thing,” Hoskins said with a laugh, adding that his voice teacher, Juilliard School instructor Darrell Babidge (a former BYU teacher), encouraged him to use that technique during the performance.
Several agents, stateside and abroad, immediately approached Hoskins after the finals. The singer doesn’t know what’s going to happen once he graduates from BYU, but winning the National Council Auditions assures he’ll have plenty of options.
A well-timed victory
For the young tenor, though, the best prize of all was singing for a full audience on a stage with the renowned Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. It was a moment three years in the making — Hoskins was 20 the first time he auditioned for the competition.
This year, the competition whittled more than 1,000 singers across North America down to nine finalists. Hoskins said reaching that point was reward enough.
“Once you make it to finals, you (can’t) do the competition again,” he said. “It was kind of nice just to know that no matter what happened on Sunday, it was done. It was nice to have that closure.”
But the victory does come at a convenient time. The tenor — the youngest singer in this year’s competition — is in his final semester at BYU and is currently applying to music schools.
Winning the big competition took some pressure off his audition for The Juilliard School, which happened Monday afternoon (less than 24 hours later). But Hoskins didn’t want to rely on the previous day’s performance to get him through the audition. He was determined to deliver just as strong of a performance.
He got a callback.
At the moment, Hoskins isn’t sure what his first-choice school is, but it’s a decision he’ll have to make by April 1. And two days after that, he’ll perform a recital with his older sister Mary Hoskins, a vocal performance graduate student at BYU.
But in the meantime, the singer has more pressing matters awaiting him in Utah: two midterms.
“I haven’t studied at all,” he said.