Rancho Palos Verdes’ Jessica Lee and Olivia Iacono — both students at Peninsula High — are among seven South Bay high schoolers who are perfecting concertos, monologues, musical theater songs and even operas in preparation for the final round of auditions for The Music Center’s Spotlight program, a free scholarship and arts training program for teens.
Of 1,450 participants across Southern California, only 113 made it to the semifinal round. The students compete in seven categories: acting, ballet, nonclassical dance, classical voice, nonclassical voice, classical instrumental and jazz instrumental.
Only 14 will win the grand prize — a $5,000 scholarship and a chance to perform at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on June 5. The winners also will join the likes of ballet dancer Misty Copeland and singers Adam Lambert and Josh Groban, who are also Spotlight alums.
“Each year, we look forward to advancing the journey of these talented young people as they participate in the Spotlight program, where they explore their craft, refine their skills and discover their full potential,” said Rachel Moore, president and CEO of The Music Center, in a statement. “No matter a student’s artistic dream, we want to empower each one to thrive on and off the stage.”
To get to the semifinal round, students must first send in a recorded video audition, then a live audition. If the student makes it past those steps, they get an opportunity to take a special master class in their genre with highly regarded artists. The artists give the students feedback on their performances and training and technique tips.
The finalist auditions, where the students once again audition before a new set of judges, began March 17 and will finish April 21. The judges will select the top two finalist performers in each category for a total of 14 grand prize finalists.
Here’s a look at both Lee and Iacono:
Lee first fell in love with the cello when she was learning the piano at age 7. She had seen her then-piano teacher play the cello and knew she had to learn it.
“I wanted to learn because I thought it was a beautiful instrument,” the 15-year-old Peninsula High sophomore said.
Then, in what further sealed her fate, she got to see world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma play Edward Elgar’s “Cello Concerto” at the Hollywood Bowl.
Now Lee is preparing for the final round of auditions for Spotlight, where she will play one Elgar piece and one from Austrian composer Joseph Haydn piece.
“I absolutely love performing,” she said. “Most people don’t actually get to show their emotions that well and I’m really lucky that I get to share my talent.”
A teenager singing opera isn’t all that common, but Iacono loves the classical art form. Before the Peninsula High senior started singing lessons in sixth grade, she tried ballet. But once she got to the harder pointe lessons, she decided she didn’t have the passion she needed to keep going.
So her mom suggested singing — not that opera singing is any easier.
“Classical voice is just as hard as ballet because of all the research you have to do to sing one song,” the 17-year-old said.
To sing a classical song, the singer must look up translations, know the language or know someone who does and understand what the composer was trying to convey.
While she’s been participating in Spotlight since the eighth grade, this is the first time Iacono has made it this far.