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It's first intermission at the Seattle Opera International Wagner Competition, Third Edition.

Nine contestants. Crazy good singing. I'm really glad I'm not a judge.

The audience gets to vote for the Audience Prize, and I don't think they'll let me rip my ballot into pieces.

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It was nearly a clean sweep by tenor Issachah Savage from Philadelphia. He won one of the two 1st prizes, the audience award, the orchestra award, and was Speight Jenkins pick to replace an indisposed scheduled singer at Speight's Farewell Celebration on Saturday. The other 1st prize winner was Danish tenor David Danholt. I believe Danholt was a last minute inclusion since he was not included in the evening's brochure but had his biography on a separate included piece of paper. I liked the idea of awarding two 1st prizes ($25,000 each) instead of the more traditional 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.

Interesting I thought that both these tenors sang from Parsifal in the 1st round. In that first round I was blown away by Danholt's delicate and haunting performance of "Nur eine Waffe taugt". All the singers were terrific. Frankly, my picks did not include Savage....altho he was hugely impressive. My pick was Seattle's Marcy Stonikas with near tie with Tamara Mancini. Mancini's Isolde was dramatically the best performance of the evening IMO. Strangely perhaps is that the performance that keeps replaying in my head 3 days later was the deeply rich mezzo voice of Suzanne Hendix singing Erda's warning to Woltan......but then I just love that piece so.

I'm certainly not one who knows voices as some can do, but perhaps some of the differences between singers who won vs singers who some of us felt sang the best, was spelled out by Speight himself when he re-took the stage to announce the winners. He emphasized two things: one, that it took the 5 judges an extraordinarily long time to reach a decision -- which he felt was a tribute to the very high quality of the contestants; and two, that he, Speight, gave very clear instructions to the jury (as it were smile.png) to select the singer who did not necessarily give the most outstanding performance of that particular night, but rather the singer whose voice was most likely to have a successful career primarily in the Wagner repertory. I thought that an interesting distinction. I kind of like the idea that the prizes should go to the best performance given not later but now; but OTOH, perhaps any good voice can do a highly selected "aria" from Wagner, but just doesn't have the power and sound for a career in the repertory. In the final analysis, I guess I have to agree with Speight, what counts is a voice that with maturity and training can do justice to a large portion of Wagner's masterpieces.

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I don't think the instruction to focus on potential was any different, but the emphasis on those who would likely go on to Wagner careers may have been. As soon as he said it, I thought of Elza van den Heever, who was the co-winner in 2008, and whose career has focused on music other than Wagner, although the program says "She will reprise the role of Elsa in Lohengrin at Zurich Opera next year," which means she has some some Wagner. I then thought that may have eliminated Stonikas, who has sung major roles with Seattle Opera and elsewhere, but not Wagner roles. (She'll sing in "Ariadne auf Naxos" next season.) Similarly Furman, who did sing Froh in the 2013 Ring.

I went back to the program to look at the Wagner connections: Danholt has sung in early Wagner ("Das Liebesverbot" and "Die Feen") as well as smaller tenor roles in other Wagner operas, and he was a finalist in last year's Wagner Society of England Competition. Savage hasn't had that much stage experience in Wagner, but he's covering Siegmund for Canadian Opera Company and has earned grants from three different Wagner societies. (He'll make his Met Opera debut in "Ernani," if there is a Met Opera season by then. I can't wait to hear him on Sirius). Helena Dix has received career support for Wagner. (Her "Liebestod" was lovely and her Isolde was a young woman, which doesn't always come across from singers who have to have voices that can still sing it after midnight, a long Act I, and a very tough Act II.) Mancini and Suzanne Hendrix were Valkyries in the 2013 Ring. Hendrix, whose done other Valkyries and small Wagner roles, is one of the three singers who could sing in the outdoor arena in Verona -- Savage and Stonikas were the others -- with her huge mezzo. (I would love to know what the judges thought of her.) She had a lot of stage presence in "Geliebter, komm" from "Tannhauser," even before opening her mouth. (My Flamenco teachers would have loved her.) Roman Ialcic covered Faffner and Hunding in the Ring. I wish I could have heard him; although I prefer him to a number of Hagens I've heard in the past, his voice seemed a little light for the role. Unfortunately, Faffner and Hunding aren't easily excerptable.

Since he announced this before the prizes, until then I had thought the two winners would be Savage, who had a wonderful Heldentenor sound, and Stonikas, who chose from two of Wagner's earlier operas where he was still writing arias; she opened the competition with "Dich, teure Halle" from "Tannhauser" and sang Senta's Ballad from "Der fliegende Hollander" in the second half. (A challenge with Wagner is that much of his music isn't a stand-alone, and even the scenes where the character is alone, like in Isolde's Narrative and Curse, doing a monologue, it doesn't quite feel complete, unlike the "Liebestod.") I had voted for Danholt for the audience prize, because I thought he wouldn't get one of the top prizes. He wasn't on the original list -- usually there are eight and two alternates -- and if he was added at the last minute, the other contestants must be ruing that decision. $25K is not chump change.

Danholt is a wonderfully elegant singer. His voice doesn't have the Heldentenor heft that Savage's does, but he's a reminder of how much Wagner admired Bellini, and his phrasing was gorgeous. I wasn't sure his voice would be considered strong enough, because although I thought his and Savage's starkly contrasting excepts from "Parsifal" were the highlights of the first half, his voice didn't quite ring through the orchestra in the Prize Song in the second. (The judges were the equivalent of eight rows behind me, and they would have heard almost the same thing.) As much as I liked new-to-Seattle conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing, I missed the expert way in which Asher Fisch adjusted the orchestra subtly to make the voices in front of him shine through. Of course, Lang-Lessing did not have the rehearsal time with the singers that Fisch did for a Ring, nor did he know them from experience, but I got the impression of a pre-determined approach from Lang-Lessing in the more dramatic pieces in the Competition: while he was a sensitive accompanist to Danholt's "Nur eine Waffe taugt," he had a tendency to let the orchestra run elsewhere.

Issachah Savage reprised "Mein lieber Schwan" from "Lohengrin," his second piece in the Competition, for the Speight Jenkins Celebration.

I was so glad Tamara Mancini sang "Gerechter Gott" from "Rienzi." While I wouldn't want to hear the whole thing in one sitting, the first part showed the bel canto influence on Wagner's work. The second part sounded more lyrical Teutonic.

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Some of the most wonderful things of the night happened before the competition started. Seattle Opera had its share of issues with Wagner tubas over the years. In this news item from local NPR station KUOW, Principal horn Jeff Fair describes the woes of instruments owned and rented. Through contacts in San Francisco, Fair was able to test drive Wagner tubas made by the Andreas Jungwirth shop in Austria. Jeff and Martha Sherman donated four of them with inscriptions to Speight Jenkins in his honor. With several of the prizes already in his honor -- the Wagner and More for audience participation, and at least one of the main prizes -- there was another surprise in the works. After four players played the Valhalla leitmotiv on the new horns, new General Director Aidan Lang made an announcement: the Opera had commissioned the aptly named "Amelia" composer, Daron Hagen, to compose a special theme for Jenkins on those horns. The musicians then played the "Speight motif." flowers.gif

Here's a list of the pieces sung:

Part 1:

Marcy Stonikas: "Dich, teure Halle" ("Tannhauser")

Kevin Ray: "Wintersturme" ("Die Walkure")
Tamara Mancini: Isolde's Narrative and Curse ("Tristan und Isolde")

Ric Furman: "Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater" ("Die Walkure")

Helena Dix: "Der Manner Sippe" ("Die Walkure")

David Danhold: "Nur eine Waffe taugt" ("Parsifal")

Suzanne Hendrix: "Geliebter, komm" ("Tannhauser")

Issachah Savage: "Amfortas! Die Wunde" ("Parsifal")

Roman Ialcic: "Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge" ("Das Rheingold")

Part 2:

Tamara Mancini: "Gerechter Gott" ("Rienzi")

Ric Furman: "In fernem Land" ("Lohengrin")

Marcy Stonikas: Senta's Ballad ("Der fliegende Hollander")

Issachah Savage: "Mein lieber Schwan" (Lohengrin)

Suzanne Hendrix: "Weiche, Wotan" ("Das Rheingold")

David Danholt: Prize Song ("Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg")

Roman Ialcic: Hagen's Watch ("Die Gotterdammerung")

Kevin Ray "Siegmund heiss' ich" ("Die Walkure")

Helena Dix: Liebestod ("Tristan und Isolde")

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Lang-Lessing.......had a tendency to let the orchestra run elsewhere.

As I sat there listening, I had the same thought.

I don't know the "etiquette" standards when it comes to conducting opera, but I would think it is perfectly normal to tone the orchestra down just a bit if the singer doesn't quite have Stephanie Blithe's power wink1.gif, but maybe that's not so. In any case, on more than one occasion I caught myself thinking: "The orchestra should back off a bit and let the singer thru."

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Thanks so much for the song list -- what a lush evening in the theater for you all!

It occurred to me that a truly fabulous prize for something like this competition (where you are trying to nurture future Wagnerians) would be a certificate from an airline, good for travel for the next five years (or some other number) -- the amount of travel that artists have to subsidize in order to pursue their work is astonishing, and although it may be tax deductible, it would still be an great investment in someone's development.

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Indeed. I remember thinking the night of the competition: "I wonder who pays the expenses that these 9 singers encumber?" I assumed it would be Seattle Opera (or alternatively one of the donors who make an event like this possible). But in any case, I have no doubt that artists make great sacrifices in pursuit of their art......even the ones that make it must have sacrificed dearly early in their career. Just one of many reasons I so admire them all.

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I don't know how common this is, but one of the reasons that singers have said they love coming to Seattle is that the volunteer corps here is so strong. At least for the Ring, volunteers pick performers up from the airport and drive them around when needed. People put them up in pretty nice-sounding houses and lend them cars and the house piano.

The Ring in the summer, with its long rehearsal period, is often the stuff of a family vacation. I remember seeing a photo of Stephen Milling with his first son when he was very young from a hike in the mountains during a day off.

I assume, though, that the singers pay their own airfare, unless there's an in-kind arrangement with one of the carriers. (Alaska is headquarted in Seattle.) I was thinking that I haven't seen much from Brett Polegato's Twitter lately: he often rates the books he's reading, and he often describes the woes of air travel and public transportation. Then today there was,

Ridiculously impressed by @united. Wasn't going to make my connect in SFO. B4 I could say anything I was told I was protected on @AlaskaAir.


Speight Jenkins has retired and the singers are on their way to their next stop. (We don't have a really good weeping smilie to insert here.)

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