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The audition judges ripped him "to shreds" last year.

Gavin Rasmussen, your rhythms were off, your tonal center is off and you missed your notes, they told him. But, one of the judges continued, I want you to sign up for my young vocal performers program.

"Um, ok," Rasmussen recalled Saturday morning, drawing out the "o" and the "k."

Like his performance this year, last year's go-round at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Kimball Recital Hall was more interested in being critiqued than winning any award or advancing in the event's competition.

He wasn't expecting as much criticism as he received last year, but it helped him grow nonetheless.

"It's really cool to even hear that like 'hey, you suck but you have potential,'" Rasmussen said.

The 21-year-old Nebraska Wesleyan University student felt his opera performance went "really well" this year.

Rasmussen was one of 18 who performed individually in front of a three-judge panel for the chance to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

Laura Franz, co-chair of the Nebraska Metropolitan Opera Auditions Committee, said the judges can select up to five people to advance from this district round to the next round. Or they don't have to pick anyone, she said, but those who are selected will advance to compete in the regional at St. Paul, Minnesota.

Winners in St. Paul will compete in the Big Apple. Winners in New York receive $15,000 each.

Like Rasmussen, Alfonzo Cooper Jr., 26, auditioned for the critiques. He's a doctoral student in vocal performance at UNL.

Cooper, a tenor, hopes to teach vocal performance and continue singing on the side. He hadn't yet auditioned Saturday, but he said he was hoping to take his experience on stage and help students. 

From Waynesboro, Georgia, Cooper said he grew up on a farm and in an environment where people encouraged and supported each other, even if they didn't come from the best background. That's what drives him and what he wants to teach his students, he said.

"I don't really think I have the best voice," Cooper said. "I really do what I can -- do what I know how to do with what I have."

Adrienne Dickson, another co-chair with the audition committee, said the judges mixed up the routine from past years. Performers typically choose to perform one of five prepared pieces while the judges select another. This year, however, the judges asked a few people to sing parts or all of three arias. Dickson said its to show the breadth, technique and ability of each performer and their voice.

This year's judges were Carroll Freeman, artistic director at Georgia State University Opera Workshop; Roger Pines, dramaturge at Lyric Opera of Chicago; and Stephanie Sundine, stage director and dramatic coach at Sarasota Opera Company.

Franz said the judges are opera professionals and former singers, which isn't always the case. They've each judged many times before, she said. Franz said it's good to have judges who've performed onstage because they've been there before.

The judges are looking for performers who they think could sing at the Metropolitan, she said.

A lot of those who performed were students, but the only requirement was being between 20- and 30-years-old and having five arias prepared.

For those who've never seen an opera performance, "it's kind of fun, it's kind of amazing," Franz said.

After judging was complete, singer Lauren McAllister was selected to attend the Region Finals. Other awards were:

* Friends of Opera, Greg and Dorie Kallos Award -- Jesse Wohlman

* Opera Omaha Guild -- Kayla Wilkens

* Gary Jones Memorial --  Joanna Mackley

* Harrower Summer Opera Workshop Award -- Gavin Rasmussen

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or mshoro@journalstar.com. On Twitter @mike_shoro.

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