Dean Schroeder doesn't consider himself much of a musician. He sings in a few choirs, but beyond that, his musical training consists of piano lessons as a child.
Schroeder never really liked opera, either.
"I originally had no interest in listening to opera," said Schroeder, who co-owns Orange Tree Imports on Monroe Street with his wife, Carol "Orange" Schroeder.
"But when I discovered Handel and other Baroque opera, like Monteverdi, it opened my eyes and changed my life, really."
Like the hero of an opera who falls in love at first sight, Schroeder has gone from indifference to passion. On Monday, July 8, the Schroeders will sponsor a new aria competition that focuses specifically on Handel's music, held as part of the Madison Early Music Festival at the UW School of Music. (See sidebar for a full list of festival events.)
George Frideric Handel's works are "a big thing in London," Schroeder said. "There's a singing competition that takes place every spring, part of a Handel festival ... I thought it would be fun to try it here."
Early on, the Schroeders brought their idea for an aria competition to Melanie Cain, artistic director of Fresco Opera Theatre, a fun-loving opera company known for working with young performers.
(Two of the finalists, Saira Frank and Jonathan Ten Brink, have performed with Fresco, most recently in "Real Divas of Dane County" and "The Good, the Bad and the Divas.")
But an aria competition of Baroque music (Handel wrote between 1703 and 1757) seemed a better fit for the Early Music Festival, which runs for a week each summer in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Humanities Building. The festival last focused on Handel in 2008.
"Their enthusiasm is fantastic," said Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, one of the festival directors.
At first, Bensman-Rowe, co-director Paul Rowe and program director Chelcy Bowles talked about changing composers each year. But in response to "Dean's great love of Handel, we said let's do Handel, there's plenty of music," Bensman-Rowe said.
In addition to English songs and Italian arias, Handel wrote 42 operas and 29 oratorios, the most famous among them "The Messiah."
Handel's arias lend themselves well to competition because of their A-B-A structure. Though he didn't follow the form slavishly, many of Handel's vocal pieces begin with an introduction ("ritornello"), a "continuo" middle section accompanied by harpsichord and cello, and finally a "da capo" finish, with vocal ornamentation.
"Da capo" means literally "from the head," or from the beginning; vocalists put their own stamp on these final sections. Schroeder compared it to jazz improvisation.
"It's so interesting to hear what they can do," he said. "Each aria is different ... you can take a certain number of liberties. It's a way of distinguishing a singer."
Focusing on young performers, organizers set the age limit at 35 and required each entrant to sing two contrasting arias — one fast, one slow. Schroeder expected some 20 submissions, and was thrilled when 49 young singers submitted recordings.
The pool included six countertenors (men who sing in the alto range), four bass-baritones, four tenors, five mezzo-sopranos and 30 sopranos, hailing mostly from neighboring states with a few from Canada and New York.
Though some arias are obviously more popular than others, "Handel wrote so many operas and so many oratorios, there was not much overlap in the audition," Schroeder said.
An early consideration to leave out pieces from "The Messiah" was rejected in favor of keeping the applicant pool broad. Favorite arias included two from "Julius Caesar": "Piangero, la sorte mia," in which Cleopatra is bemoaning her fate, and the celebratory "Da tempeste il legno infranto," in which she celebrates the return of Caesar.
After a marathon listening session, judges narrowed the group to eight finalists: Jonathan Ten Brink (Fresco), Chelsea Morris (Madison Bach Musicians), Blake Morgan, Elisa Sutherland, Caitlin Shirley, Alison Wahl, Winie Nieh (winner of the St. Andrews Arts Council International Aria Competition in 2012) and Saira Frank.
Frank, a soprano from Waukesha who earned her Master of Fine Arts degree from the UW School of Music, will likely be most familiar to Madison audiences.
In addition to her work with Fresco and Opera for the Young, Frank played the leading role in "Alcina" and "The Merry Widow" before graduating in 2009. In 2012, she made her Madison Opera debut as Duchess Christina in "Galileo Galilei," rejoining the company this coming season for "Dead Man Walking."
For her first piece, Frank chose an aria from "Alcina," "Ombre pallide," which means pale shadows.
"It's a moment in the opera when Alcina is speaking to the powers, the spirits that she commands, and they're ignoring her for the first time," Frank said.
The second piece is "I know that my redeemer liveth," from "The Messiah," which Frank first performed as an undergraduate at Northwestern University.
"It's expected that you add your own ornaments," Frank said, noting that some of hers have changed since she first performed the arias. "If you did 'The Messiah' and sang what's written, people would think it's boring."
Frank loves that Handel's music allows this flexibility. She can choose where she wants to put her high notes and her fast runs, something she thinks appeals to "the intellectual side of musicians."
"I think people are approaching it more as music that is accessible in our age, instead of being antiquated and outdated," Frank said. "People are taking Handel's operas and staging them in a way that uses contemporary clothing, making it feel like something a person can imagine happening."
It's not all free range — singers must follow the line of the music and keep to a historically accurate tempo. One singer who slogged through "How beautiful are the feet," a languid aria from "Messiah," was quickly eliminated from the early pool for singing it even slower than it was written.
The eight finalists will spend several days in Madison, some staying in the dorms with other early music festival participants.
On Monday, July 8, at 7 p.m., each performer will sing their two arias for a panel of judges: John Barker, a UW professor emeritus and local scholar of opera; Ellen Hargis, an early music performer and teacher from Chicago; and William Hudson, an assistant professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and an early music specialist.
The top prize is $1,000, second is $750 and third place receives $500 (the Schroeders are the event's primary sponsors). An audience favorite will get a free pass to the Madison Early Music Festival in 2014.
"I love anything that makes Wisconsin stand out to other musicians," Frank said. "We have such a wonderful arts scene, between Madison, Milwaukee, the Fox Valley. It gets forgotten a little bit.
"I love it when things pop up like this. People are coming from all over; they have all sorts of experience."
For his part, Schroeder hopes the competition will continue to grow.
"We were overwhelmed by the response this year," Schroeder said. "We'll stay with the early music festival as long as they'll have us. ... we're hoping everyone locally will come. It's a free concert, with so much to enjoy. We're so lucky to have all this talent."