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69th Annual Jeanie & Stephen Foster Vocal Competition

2020 Stephen and Jeanie contestants L to R: James Hooper Stephens - Stephen Runner-up, Ashley Ambrose, Victoria Jebian - Jeanie Maid 2020 (2nd place), Allison Fahey - Jeanie Maid 2020 (3rd place), Adam Benton - Stephen 2020, Nicole Carrion - Jeanie 2020, Colby Harter - Stephen 3rd place, Jessica Farris, Alexandra Torres, Isabelle Scott. -Photo by Catherine Chapman

2020 Jeanie and Stephen winners shown above. Adam Benton (2020 Stephen) is singing “Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair,” to Nicole Carrion (2020 Jeanie), both from Stetson University.
-SVT Photo by Tami Stevenson

By Tami Stevenson

In the tradition of the old south, the 69th Annual Jeanie & Stephen Foster Vocal Competition was held last week at the Stephen Foster State Folk Culture Center. Seven young ladies seemingly floating around in their beautiful 17th century style ball gowns was captivating. Three male contestants vied for the title of Stephen for 2020, each dressed in a tux and looking their best, all keeping with the theme of the event, which is named for a song Stephen Foster wrote for his wife, “Jeanie, with the Light Brown Hair.” Not only were they fascinating to watch, they could sing, and sing well! It was apparent that each contestant was a professional-level opera singer as each gave a stellar performance singing Stephen Foster songs and other songs of their choosing.

The event is sponsored by the Florida Federation of Music Clubs (FFMC) Senior Club and co-sponsored by Stephen Foster State Folk Culture Center in White Springs, Florida. According to Stephen Foster Park Specialist Andrea Thomas, the idea for the Stephen Foster/Jeanie Auditions originated in December, 1951 to encourage promising young Florida female vocal students. The first music scholarship award was presented to the winning Jeanie in 1954 by Stephen Foster’s closest living relative, Evelyn Foster Morneweck. Since 2006, the auditions have also been open to male contestants as well due to the generous endowment by Connie Tuttle-Lill. This event is technically the parks oldest event and the Florida Federation of Music is one of the parks founders.

Connie Lill is the Chairman of the FFMC Jeanie/Stephen Auditions Committee and served as president for many years. Along with her husband, William Lill, their dedication to music and the Jeanie/Stephen competition has helped to ensure the livelihood of this gone-by era, spending countless hours preparing for these events, along with the many park staff, volunteers and dedicated admirers of the Stephen Foster legacy.

The Jeanie/Stephen competitions are held in conjunction with National Stephen Foster Day celebrated the third weekend in January. Qualified judges select three female finalists. One is crowned Jeanie with an award of $2,000. The Jeanie Runner-Up receives an award of $1,500 and the Jeanie Maid (third place) receives $500. These same judges also select three male vocalists, one to receive the Stephen title with an award of $2,000; the Stephen Runner-Up received an award of $1,500 and Stephen Third Place received $500. Their hope is that these scholarship winners will use their awards to continue their vocal studies.

L-R: Adam Benton, - 2020 Stephen with Pianist Nadiya Caspary, FFM Chairman Connie Lill and Nicole Carrion, 2020 Jeanie. -Photo by Catherine Chapman

The winners of this 2020 competition are as follows:

Jeanie 2020 - Nicole Carrion, Stetson University is sponsored by Sarasota Music Club, Janet Jackson, President.

2nd place (Jeanie Maid) is Victoria Jebian, Barry University and sponsored by Coral Gables Music Club, Frances Meltzer, President.

3rd runner-up is Allison Fahey, Stetson University and sponsored by Wauchula Music Club, Dr. Sylvia Collins, President.

Stephen 2020 - Adam Benton, Stetson University is sponsored by Harmony Music Club in Jacksonville, Connie Lill, President.

2nd place is James Hooper Stevens, Florida State University is sponsored by Hollywood Music Club, Chai L. Chien, President.

3rd place is Colby Harter, Stetson University is sponsored by Choctaw Bay Music Club, Lisa Cyr, President.

Other contestants this year included

Jessica Farris, a Santa Fe College student, plans to go to the University of Florida. She is sponsored by the Foundation For the Promotion of Music, Linda Blessing, President.

Alexandra Torres from the University of South Florida, is sponsored by Tampa Friday Morning Musicale, Laura Hollis, President.

Isabelle Scott from Converse College is sponsored by Harmony Music Club in Jacksonville, Connie Lill, President.
Ashley Ambrose from Florida State University is sponsored by Choctaw Bay Music Club, Lisa Cyr, President.

The distinguished panel of judges were Brittany DiGiammarino - Educator and Performer, Emily Lopez - Educator and Vocalist and Rebecca Vincent - Educator, Vocalist and Song Writer.

After the competitions and before they named the winners, they held a luncheon where last year’s Jeannie and Stephen each sang three songs. Grace Lengacher - Jeanie 2019 - Sponsored by Choctaw Bay Music Club and Devin Eatmon – Stephen 2019 - Sponsored by Sarasota Music Club.

Jeanie 2020 Nicole Carrion. -Photo by Catherine Chapman

2nd place Victoria Jebian. -Photo by Catherine Chapman

2rd place Allison Fahey. -Photo by Catherine Chapman

2020 Stephen Adam Benton. -Photo by Catherine Chapman

2nd place Stephen James Hooper Stevens. -Photo by Catherine Chapman

3rd place Stephen Colby Harter. -Photo by Catherine Chapman

2020 Stephen - Adam Benton twirls 2020 Jeanie - Nicole Carrion on the front lawn of the museum at Stephen Foster State Culture Center. -Photo by Catherine Chapman

The lunch was catered by Kay’s Catering from Lake City. Five assistants from Columbia High volunteered to help Kay’s to serve the luncheon. Connie Lill wanted to thank Kay’s Catering and the five students from Columbia High School that volunteered to help.

“They did a wonderful job with their white gloves and making sure the sparkling water in our glasses stayed sparkly.”

A special thank you to Men’s Warehouse. Connie Lill said they sold the tuxes to the male contestants for the price it would have cost them to merely rent them so they can wear them to competitions around the state.

“If only we could get some help with the girls’ gowns now,” commented Lill.

Other special recognition goes out to Cheryl Poe, FFM President, Pianist Nadiya Caspary, a freelance accompanist based in Tallahassee, Catherine Chapman for photography, videography and stage production, Patricia Cromer, the Museum Docent and the many staff and volunteers that helped to make Jeanie & Stephen 2020 a success.

L-R: Grace Lengacher - Jeanie 2019, Nicole Carrion - Jeanie 2020, Adam Benton - Stephen 2020 and Devin Eatmon – Stephen 2019. -Photo by Catherine Chapman