Emily Damasco is like most 17-year-old girls from her Philadelphia suburb. She loves makeup, listens to her older sister’s playlist and checks her mailbox for college acceptance letters. But the operatic performer also owns a mezzo-soprano voice that just won the third annual Max Mara Young Visionary Award through the brand’s partnership with the National YoungArts Foundation. Coupled with the nonprofit’s gold award, the highest amount it bestows to young artists who compete in multiple genres at its National YoungArts Week in January, the $10,000 prize means she’ll matriculate with a few less headaches than most freshmen.
“I went to YoungArts Week just to learn and have fun with no thoughts of winning. It feels like summer camp,” said Damasco, who selected a mournful aria, “Se il ciel mi divide” from Niccolò Piccinni’s “Alessandro nelle Indie,” for the finalist competition. “It’s heavy and dark with difficult breath. It shows what I can do.”
Growing up in a musical family, she inherited her gift from her maternal grandmother, a Pittsburgh restaurateur who didn’t have the luxury to pursue a stage career. Damasco’s mother made sure not to repeat the misfortune upon hearing her then kindergartener belt out Britney Spears’ “Womanizer.” By third grade, Damasco was part of the cast for “La Bohème” at the Atlantic Coast Opera Festival. Though focused on opera, her repertoire encompasses gospel, choral music and church hymns.
Whereas other kids are comparing SAT scores, her biggest hurdle is the live audition. She dreams of attending the Curtis Institute of Music, not because it’s close to home but for its motto, “Learn by doing.” Since tuition is free, her prize money will go toward room and board in Philadelphia, as well as a prom dress that she can also use for work. Damasco puts a lot of thought into what she wears to perform. For YoungArts, her iridescent, dark blue gown by Calvin Klein reflected the mood of the song and her personality.
“It changes colors and shows two contrasting sides like how I’m bubbly but turn into a completely different person when I sing. I’m very serious when it comes to opera,” she said, adding another highlight of the experience was taking a master class with mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton. “She told us to analyze and put emotions into a song and really know the music versus just singing to hear yourself.”
Miamians will have a second chance to watch Damasco perform during a celebration at Max Mara’s boutique in the Design District on March 20.