By Bob King, Contributing Writer for the Bavarian NewsSeptember 26, 2011
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- The Performing Arts Center reverberated with the heartfelt singing of 10 contestants trying to win "Operation Rising Star," here, Sept. 16. Over 150 enthusiastic fans packed the Performing Arts Center to cheer on and help narrow the field to six semifinalists. The following week, Sept. 23, one dedicated performer won the final round and earned her shot at the ultimate prize -- an all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles, Calif., to make a record.
Tamara Stinson wowed the judges with her rendition of Beyonce's "Listen," winning $500 and the chance to move forward to the next phase of Rising Star. Stinson has performed in other competitions -- most notably two turns at the famous Apollo Theater in New York City -- but she never won. She believes this win is, finally, the break she has been waiting for.
"I think there's truly a time and season for everything," Stinson said. "I'm coming into my season."
The arduous journey to the final round began nearly three weeks ago, with 16 initial competitors. Ten men and women advanced to round two, where the preshow jitters were quickly mounting. Nerves were frayed, lyrics were hazy and a few "health bugs" were making their rounds.
"Do you want a honey stick?" offered competitor Jesse Dye. Several of her sore-throated peers eagerly accepted the cure, cementing backstage friendships that had grown stronger throughout the competition. Where there should have been fierce rivalry, there was only support.
Based on the judging criteria, support was in critical need. Three judges looked for superiority in four areas: technical excellence, showmanship, interpretation of the material and visual elements. In addition to these factors, judge LeDawn Petersen was looking for a presentation greater than the sum of its parts.
"Anybody can just get up and sing," said Petersen, "but you really need to perform and connect with the audience."
Making that connection has come easily to this year's semifinalists. For some, though, it has taken more effort. Stephanie Lewis performed throughout her childhood and adolescence, but she took a 10-year break to raise a family. Then anxiety set in -- time was slipping by. "I realized that part of me was dying on the vine," explained Lewis. "I needed to keep singing, just for fun, just for my own soul."
She promised her family she would give Rising Star a shot. Lewis' biggest motivator was showing her daughter how to overcome nerves.
Competitor Command Sgt. Maj. Steve Schwartz echoed Lewis' reasons, saying he performed mainly to be a good role model for his five children, but also to have fun. In fact, nearly all of the singers declared that having a good time was their primary reason for doing Operation Rising Star. But more than one openly yearned for the grand prize.
Spc. Joshua Baumbach started singing at age 7 and, at one point, attempted a full-time stage career. Baumbach still dreams of getting a recording contract, but he had a rival several steps away.
"I really want this, and I will fight to the end for it," said Pfc. Hector Pedroza. For him, the competition began during morning PT. His unit wanted proof Pedroza had the goods before they would get behind him, so he sang for them.
"It was nerve-racking," explained Pedroza. "It was right in the morning … right before PT, so I was groggy, but I went for it and I got through it." The command performance earned him a sizeable cheering section at the Performing Arts Center.
Having fans in the seats, both during the second and third rounds, was more than just a morale booster. Audience members received a ballot so they could vote for their favorite performers. The audience votes were counted and matched evenly against the judges' votes, giving the contestants a potential leg-up.
Before the judging commenced, singers belted out various hits from country to disco to Rat Pack-style crooning. Staff Sgt. Darren McGraw connected with everyone by changing the lyrics of Ray Charles' classic about Georgia to "CONUS on my Mind." His nostalgia for the simple pleasures of America also got judge Markie Richer's attention.
"I want to commend you on taking something that's a standard song and personalizing it to your own situation," said Richer. "Wow, that's a gift in itself right there."