One might expect 16-year-old Loren Battieste's musical interests would lean toward rock, ska or rap.
The fact is, he digs opera--which surprised him too--at first.
"People have the misconception that opera is boring," he said. "But it isn't. . . . It can be quite exciting. But to fall in love with it, you have to really get into it. . . . I never would have thought it could be something I would like, but when I gave it a chance, I found out I liked it a lot."
Loren had sung in his church choir at Carbon Canyon Christian Church in Brea since he was young, and he'd been a member of the All American Boys Chorus from a young age. Voice teacher Richard Dastrup turned Loren on to opera a couple of years ago, after the teen's voice changed and he could no longer hit the high notes.
Smart move. The Anaheim Hills teen, who sings baritone, recently won first place and a $5,000 scholarship in the classical voice category at the 10th annual Music Center Spotlight Awards in Los Angeles. He was first picked as one of 12 semifinalists from a field of 700.
Dam Van Huynh, 18, of Anaheim, was a semifinalist in the jazz/modern dance category and won a $2,500 scholarship.
Loren said he didn't think he had a prayer of winning: "When I went for the first audition, which was held at the Irvine Barclay, I had no idea of how big of a competition it was. After that, I got a letter telling me I was a semifinalist. It wasn't until much later that I was told I was one of 12 semifinalists out of 700. I was, like, 'Whoa!' Because, usually, my competitions were on a much smaller scale, maybe competing with 10 people."
He was also the only boy chosen as a semifinalist in the classical voice category.
"It's harder to compete with girls since their voices are usually more developed. I was confident about the final competition, but at the same time I really thought it was impossible for me to win."
What aced the final for Loren, he says, was performing in English a song that he'd originally sung in German. "After I'd sung the song for the semifinals, the judges told me they liked the song a lot but that my German was bad," he said. "Actually, they said my German was terrible. So, for finals, I relearned the song in English, and it seemed to make all the difference.
"A lot of my friends and all of my family were there for the awards ceremony at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It was a big night for me, a huge night."
Loren, son of John and Jackie Battieste, has one brother, Drew, 30. Home-schooled since the third grade, Loren plays the piano and takes dance lessons. Many of the songs he sings are in foreign languages, mostly German or Italian.
"My voice teacher picks out most of my music, and many of the songs are in other languages. It's hard, but, for some reason, I usually pick it up pretty quickly. I learn the words, but I don't always know what the words mean," he said, laughing.
Dastrup said his student's personality and ability should hold him in good stead.
"Loren has a talent that was with him to begin with," Dastrup said. "I'm glad he likes opera because opera is singing at its best. . . . Loren is very humble and unassuming, and that is one of the things that, if he stays that way, will help him to achieve his goals."
Loren has already zeroed in on opera as a career.
"I plan to go to college, probably UCI or Chapman University," he said. "In fact, I put the $5,000 scholarship in the bank for college. I'll major in music, and after I graduate I hope to travel around the world appearing in musicals. I love listening to all types of music, but as far as performing, it will always be opera for me. Partly because of my voice and the range I have and partly because I just love the music."
Loren admires opera great Luciano Pavarotti's singing style but says his mentors are his voice teacher and his parents.
"When I was around 9 years old, I used to hate taking piano lessons," he said. "I always really dreaded having to practice. But it eventually led to my love of music and singing. I think that finding something you really like, whether it's sports or music or whatever, and then working hard to excel at it, makes you goal-oriented and gives you something to shoot for in life.
"Out of all my friends, I'm the only one who is actually already doing something right now that will probably lead to a career. Some of them would rather watch TV or shoot baskets. I like doing that too, but I also like focusing on my music and working on it as much as possible. The many, many hours I've spent practicing have already paid off in ways I never even dreamed of."