Northern Virginia artist opens the door to competition for budding talents
by Laura Emery, Staff Writer
Like the graceful dancers that pirouette daily on the floors of the Virginia National Ballet studios in Manassas, Va., life sometimes requires a little bit of pivoting as well.
Elysabeth Muscat, managing director of the Northern Virginia ballet company and school, wasn’t about to let a worldwide pandemic shut down things for her.
Instead, it was the perfect time to bring a longtime dream to fruition with her husband, Rafifik Hegab. “Because of COVID and everything getting shut down at the start of it, I suddenly found myself at my home in Bristow every day, instead of at the studio,” the Fairfax County, Va., native says. “I had no other choice than to switch gears and adapt.”
As a former opera singer, a skilled pianist, a music teacher and dance studio owner, Muscat wanted to do more to help other artists achieve their dreams. “I wanted to create and run an international music competition,” she says.
With her extensive background in performing opera in front of sold-out venues all across Europe, as well as teaching music atThThe Peabody Institute of the JohnsHopkins University for 15 years, Muscat knew she could pivot a little and successfully pull it off.
And pull it off, she did.
GRAND PRIX OF MUSIC
It’s been something the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative member had been thinking about for many years. But it wouldn’t have come to fruition without COVID. “It took many, many months of planning and working until very late in the evening,” she says.
She founded music International Grand Prix—an international music competition for voice, piano, strings, winds and brass, composition and ensembles— in 2020 and completed its first season in 2021. “Even during the pandemic, we were able to hold Zoom semifinals and finals, as well as in-person finals and a winners’ concert, live,” she says. The Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas hosted that event onMay 1, 2021.
More than 350 contestants from around the world participated in five categories and four age groups, with winners sharing more than $16,000 in prize money, including the $5,000 Grand Prix award.
“The winners, 20 of them, competed at the winners’ concert. We Zoomed in the competitors from Europe and Asia. It was very stressful for me because I was having to operate the Zoom on my computer backstage, and we were dealing with different time zones. We had to make sure everything was coordinated perfectly, right down to the second,” she says.
“The talent level was so high,” she gushes. The mere thought takes Muscat back to her childhood, when she first discovered her passion.
LIFETIME OF MUSIC
“As a child, I was listening to classic rock and pop music on the radio, but, at the same, my father was an amazing pianist and my mother was a huge fan of opera. We used to go to the ballet and go to the opera and to various concerts, so I was very immersed in the world of musical expression early on,” she says.
Fascinated by her father’s musical prowess on the piano, Muscat learned to play the piano. But it wasn’t long until Muscat knew what she really wanted.
“I wanted to sound like Pat Benatar,” she says. “I’d learned to play the piano and play it really well — it’s all I did for about four years. But, at about the age of 15, I realized I wanted to sing.”
After meeting with a voice teacher, Muscat knew her voice gravitated to the classical music sounds that her mother often listened to around the home.
“Unfortunately, classical music and opera are not part of the culture here in the United States, and a lot of parents don’t expose their children to it because they were not exposed to it themselves. Some people think of it as an elitist thing. But opera is incredible and, if you give it a chance, you’ll realize it’s really wonderful to listen to. It’s an emotional experience.”
Her big break was getting an apprenticeship at the Zürich Opera, and she went on to perform leading roles at the Staatsoper Prague, Vienna Kammeroper, Theater der Stadt Koblenz and L’Opera Francais.
Through the Music International Grand Prix competition, Muscat wants to give other artists, with no age limit, the opportunity to feel the excitement of competing, the experience of performing in front of an audience and the benefit of receiving feedback from well-known judges. “And, if they make it to the end, being able to have something to proudly put on their resume,” she explains.
Muscat promises that the next competition will be even greater. The 2022 competition already has over 400 competitors registered, and the winners’ concert this year will be in New York City in May, at Merkin Hall near Lincoln Center. She says, “I couldn’t be more excited about it.”