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Last Saturday night Seattle Opera held it's first International Wagner Competition for young singers at McCaw Hall. Last year, Speight Jenkins and several others auditioned 43 singers, hoping to find six and two alternates; instead, they found the level of singing so great they chose eight with two alternates from auditions in Vienna, Berlin, London, New York, and Seattle. There were two halves to the program, in which each singer sang one excerpt in each half, in a different start order in each half. Between parts there was free champagne. After part two, the audience took the ballots in the programs and dropped them into the box with the name and picture of their choice for Audience Favorite in three voting stations in the second level lobby and filtered back into the auditorium waiting for the judges' decision and the counting of the audience ballots. At one point, General Director Speight Jenkins came back in to announce that the audience voting was so close, they had to do a recount and made a Florida joke.

The judges were mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe who sang a superb Fricka and tenor Peter Kazaras, who sange a mean Loge in Seattle Opera's Ring -- Kazaras now runs the Young Artists Program at Seattle Opera and directs -- Stephen Wadsworth, director of opera and theater and translator, Dr. Dorthea Glatt, who was Wolfgang Wagner's assistant for three decades at Bayreuth and who now consults worldwide, and Sir Peter Jonas, who just retired as Interdant of the Bayerische Staatsoper and is about to embark on a set of two cross-Europe walks: north/south and east/west.

KING-FM Seattle (98.1 FM) will broadcast the Seattle Opera International Wagner Competition and will stream it from their website (www.king.org) tomorrow (Saturday) night, 26 August, from 7-9:30 pm PT. [Edited to add: the Seattle Opera website has short video excerpts of the end of Rutherford's Dutchman and Murphy's Isolde. In the right column under "What's New," click "Hear the IWC Winners."]

As one who’d never attended a voice competition before, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. To find young Wagner singers of the future seemed a bit general as a goal. If the winners were chosen based on potential for the super roles of the Wagner rep, then I think the two jury winners were the correct choices. I have to wonder why it isn’t an equally laudable goal to identify the singers who would grace the stage now in smaller roles and would grow soon into the key roles that aren’t necessarily title roles. In one case, I might have made a different choice.

The background was the set from Act II of Der Rosenkavalier, which is entirely in off-white, with the possible exception of some flower stems. The men wore white tie, always a pleasure to see. One soprano wore a simple gold dress with a sculpted black and silver gold jacket that cinched on the side. The other wore an empire-waisted dress in crushed velvet periwinkle, and because she was tall and gorgeous, it was a stunner.

There is one caveat I have in describing the quality of the singing, and that is that I heard the performances from the orchestra, a vantage point I never would have chosen for myself. The intermission scuttlebutt was that originally the judges were going to be segregated in the Dress Circle, with all of the audience in the orchestra, but that Seattle Opera opened up higher tier seating. I personally would have preferred to hear the competition from above the orchestra.

There were two sopranos in the competition. Miriam Murphy was my pre-competition favorite going in; I was very much looking forward to hearing a big-voiced Irish soprano. After her Part I “Ewig war ich,” the aria Brunhilde sings after she is wakened by Siegfried, I was quite disappointed: to me she sounded to me as if she wasn’t under her voice, and that she had trouble controlling it. I found her interpretation dull and uncentered, and that the performance was one of the two weakest of the first half. By contrast, she found her voice in Part II, singing Isolde’s Narrative and Curse. I think she shaped the narrative beautifully and was very attentive to the text. It was meant to be a blow-the-roof-off selection, and she delivered. She has Nilsson’s gutsiness, but I don’t think she has much of Nilsson’s warmth. I would not be very interested in hearing her sing much outside the Wagner rep, and she was the only singer in the Competition I would say that about.

By contrast, based on her two selections, I think that based on her performances of "Senta's Ballad" (Flying Dutchman) and "Dich, teure Halle" (Tannhauser), soprano Dorothy Grandia (NY/Netherlands) could give warm and sympathetic readings of Siegliende and Freia, to name only two Wagner roles. I don’t know if she could or should make an entire career of singing Wagner, but singers who are invested in the music, if not exclusively in Wagner, bring a freshness to the intermediate roles, particularly in the “Ring.” In the same vein, tenor Jason Collins (SC) sang a detailed and nuanced Siegmund in “Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater” in which Siegmund describes all of the horrible things that have befallen him, now trapped, weaponless, in the house of his enemy, but remembers that his father promised him a sword in his need -- a tough opener for the entire competition – with more optimism than I’m used to, which would have made Siegmund’s downfall that more tragic by comparison. Although he was not quite as warmed up as he was for Part II, I much preferred the entire shape of his performance to “Rienzi’s Prayer,” a piece of music which I find cloying, particularly in contrast to the piece from Flying Dutchman which preceded it. (Collins had the two toughest slots in the competition.) He has a big, warm, centered voice with very good agility. In fact, I was surprised that all four tenors had a golden gleam in their voices; there were no Vickers-like singers in the bunch. I hope Collins has a successful career, because I would love to hear a lot more of him.

Because American soprano Carolyn Betty fell ill, first alternate Philip O'Brien, a tenor from the UK, filled in. He's a young, handsome redhead, but he doesn't yet have the heft to his voice that he'd need to soar over the huge Wagnerian orchestras. He struggled a bit in the Steersman's song from Flying Dutchman in Part I, but his attention to detail and warmth in Lohengrin's appeal to Elsa in the Part II, where the orchestra was less bombastic, shows a lot of promise, and I think he'd make a fine recitalist.

Due to the substitution, instead of three sopranos, three tenors, one baritone, and one bass, there were two sopranos, four tenors, one baritone, and one bass. (We were awash in a bumper crop of tenors.) The second singer to perform, right after Jason Collins, was tenor Paul McNamara (Ireland). He sang Tannhauser's "Rome Narrative" with a bit too much vibrato, but quite intelligently, in Part I, and he closed the competition with Parsifal's "Nur eine Waffe taugt." It is a moving piece of music, and I think he suffered by following Murphy's Isolde excerpt, which had whipped the crowd into a frenzy. The Parsifal was more subtle, and I think a bit underappreciated.

I’m convinced that the only way a bass had a chance to win was to sing Wotan, probably the Farewell. Bass Carsten Wittmoser’s (Germany) strategy was different: he sang two roles he could be hired for tomorrow, King Marke and the Landgrave. Like every other singer, he chose a sympathetic role for Part I, and unlike every singer except Paul McNamara, a tenor from Ireland, he did not choose a tour-de-force in Part II. Instead, he sang the Langrave’s invitation to song (“Gar viel und schon” from Tannhauser) to open Part II. In it he showed he could sing the role of a man who was collegial but who also thought he was funny and clever and really isn't. It was a lovely performance, showing style and versatility, and he was not afraid to play a character with conviction, even if that character was neither hero nor villain and a bit silly, though not humorous. If I had an opera house and were trying to develop a set of core singers for rep, he would be one of them.

Hearing New Zealand tenor Andrew Lindsay Sritheran, I have to wonder, “Why Wagner?” He sang two big heroic pieces, Siegmund's “Wintersturme” (Die Walkure and the “Prize Song,” (Die Meistersinger) as if the two characters were cut from the same cloth. He’s got hero written all over him, physically and vocally, but not any Wagnerian hero I recognize. Tall, slender, gorgeous, with jet black hair, he’s like Corelli without the angst. French and Italian rep – absolutely: hire the man before he's booked indefinitely. I’m having a hard time thinking of a German role I’d cast him in, not even Italian tenor in “Der Rosenkavalier.”

For me the star of the entire competition was baritone James Rutherford (UK). When he sang Hans Sach’s monologue, I stopped thinking about every recording I’ve ever heard, even Friederich Schorr’s. He sang in a rich-toned baritone with understatement, humor, and a sense of wonder. I’m fairly certain I stopped thinking altogether during his terror-filled and agony-laden “Die Frist is um.” Wish lists of “Alberich’s curse,” and (fingers-crossed) maybe in a decade (or two) Wotan, as well as lieder recitals popped to mind as soon as he finished.

It would be worth staying up to whatever hour for the KING broadcast/webcast tomorrow night, just to hear Rutherford. He is scheduled to sing at 7:49pm (PT) and 8:53pm (PT): http://www.king.org/nowplaying/Schedule.asp?DATE=20060826.

The orchestra had a daunting task: amidst a “Der Rosenkavalier” run, with performances of that opera the night before and the next day (2pm matinee), they did orchestral rehearsals with the singers consisting of excerpts from nine Wagnerian operas in addition to the competition itself. They sounded superb. After hearing Asher Fisch’s “Ring” a couple of years ago in Adelaide, it didn’t surprise me how well the orchestra sounded, and that he was generally sensitive to the singers.

After the audience vote was tallied, and the judges decided on the two equal winners of the $15,000 prizes, Jenkins introduced Susan Hutchinson, who runs the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences, which sponsored the event. Hutchinson announced that the competition would take place every other year, which was great news. The judges were introduced on stage, then the singers, who each received a bouquet of purple and white flowers and a certificate. Somewhere in there, Stephen Wadsworth thanked Asher Fisch and the orchestra.

The orchestra decided that if the judges were going to vote, and the audience was going to vote, they were going to vote, too, and they created their own award on the spot, which was won by James Rutherford. Rutherford also won the audience vote. Jenkins, holding the checks, then announced "ladies first," which caused me to cringe, because I knew it wouldn't be Grandia, and both Collins and Wittmoser were likely to be out. Sure enough, the Murphy's Isolde gave her the win. Being a figure skating fan, that stuck in my craw, because to use a figure skating analogy, she was close to the bottom after short program, and shouldn't have won the Olympic gold medal because she was among the top in the long program. But if they were looking for Big Talent for Big Roles, they chose the right person. There was justice, though, because James Rutherford won the Triple Crown, after being awarded the other $15,000 prize.

I hope they've all made enough connections through this competition to get hired. It really was a case where they were all worthy of being heard, if not all at the same level at this point in their careers, and that's hard enough to find in a single cast in an opera. I was not expecting this depth of talent, and certainly not among tenors.

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I just finished reading the November 2010 edition of "The Wagner Journal", which is edited by Barry Millington. In it there was a review of Katharina Wagner's Bayreuth production of "Die Meistersinger", and Millington wrote:

The new Hans Sachs, James Rutherford, more than proves the faith many have had in him with an authoritative, richly nuanced reading of the role. Rutherford joins the international league with this assumption.

Congratulations to Mr. Rutherford. I hope to hear his complete Hans Sachs one day.

Also, in a review of this past summer's "Tristan und Isolde" in Seattle, Andrew Moravcsik lauded bass Stephen Milling, "[who] nearly stole the show with a world-class King Mark of deep feeling, his rich bass effortlessly filling the hall with exemplary German." I have no beef with Milling's German, and I'm not sure I'd have qualified the statement with "nearly", but Melot sings before King Mark, and it was Jason Collins' clear diction that made me aware for the first time in the performance that the opera was in German.

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