Andrew Rene

The winner of the 2019 Heafner-Williams Vocal Competition, Andrew Rene, performs Sunday, March 17, at the Lincoln Cultural Center. 

The Timken Performance Hall at the Lincoln Cultural Center is known for its acoustics. During the annual Heafner/Williams Vocal Competition, the sound quality of the hall can really be appreciated.

The singers perform without a microphone and are accompanied only by a piano, yet their voices seemingly rise up to the hall’s dome, circle around and envelop the audience. The competition co-founder, Carolyn Heafner, describes the music of opera as being a “direct connection from the voice to the heart, straight to the audience.”

The Heafner/Williams Vocal Competition, which has been running for more than 15 years, was founded by Heafner and Robert Williams after they retired as professional opera singers and relocated to Lincolnton. The Lincoln Cultural Center has supported and hosted the competition from the start.

James Smidt

James Smidt, who took second place in the 2019 Heafner-Williams Vocal Competition, performs Sunday, March 17, at the Lincoln Cultural Center. 

Twenty competitors entered the semifinals on Saturday, March 16, with six making it to the finals held on Sunday. Of those six, two were from the Lincolnton area: Edward Bland and Alexandria McKneely. Both attend Lenoir-Rhyne University. A third, Adrian Smith, graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne.

“I was really excited about this year’s competition because when I heard them in the semifinals, I don’t know how the judges chose the six,” co-founder Carolyn Heafner said. “They just kept getting better and better. This is probably the best competition we’ve had.”

The last competitor of the day, Andrew René, stole the show and was awarded first prize. It was the first time in the competition for René, who is pursuing a master’s degree in music at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts A.J. Fletcher Opera Institution.

“The repertoire requirements for this competition are very difficult,” René said. “They ask for a lot of different types of music but I felt like that helped me out in the end, having to do a variety of different styles and dynamics.”

To be considered for the competition, applicants must perform selections from at least three of the five repertoire categories – musical theater, opera, operetta, oratorio and classical song. The competition is open to singers from ages 18 to 35 who are residents of or enrolled in school in North Carolina, South Carolina or Virginia.

René, 29, who is from Beaumont, Texas, switched to opera after originally studying organ at Baylor University.

“I’m graduating in May and then it’ll be audition, audition, audition,” he said. “I was recently given a grant to audition for young artist programs at big opera houses.”

Second place went to James Smidt, a tenor attending the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Kathleen Felty and Adrian Smith tied for third place. The judges this year were Eric Jordan, Valerie MacPhail and Patricia Harrelson.


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