On the Beat

On the Beat

Appleby takes top prize at the Lissner Competition; Sellars gives us all a moment to remember at the OPERA NEWS Awards.

On the Beat Appleby lg 712
Appleby, $15,000 richer
© Dario Acosta 2012

IN LATE March and early April, THE GERDA LISSNER FOUNDATION held its annual vocal competition. I attended one full day of final rounds on March 30. The top prize ($15,000) was won by tenor PAUL APPLEBY, who gave an imaginative account of Tom Rakewell's "Vary the song, O London, change!" The three first-prize winners ($10,000 each) were well chosen. A competition aria should boldly show the judges what you've got, and that's exactly what each of the winners in this category seemed to understand. Tenor MICHELE ANGELINI brought lovely tone and fearless presence to Ramiro's great show-off aria from La Cenerentola. Tenor NOAH BAETGE echoed the strong impression he made in this year's George London Foundation Competition with a fully realized performance of Hoffmann's "Kleinzach," and bass SCOTT CONNER gave an excellent rendition of "Air du Tambour Major," from Thomas's Le Caïd. The Wagnerian first prize ($10,000) was given to WENDY BRYN HARMER, whose performance I did not hear.

I liked soprano LAYLA CLAIRE, who gave a nicely connected rendition of "Ach, ich fühl's" and walked away with a $5,000 second prize. Tenor ALEXANDER LEWIS (second prize) sounded terrific in Rinuccio's "Avete torto" from Gianni Schicchi. Soprano JACQUELINE ECHOLS (second prize) gave one of my favorite performances of the day with her exhilarating account of Anne Trulove's "No word from Tom." Tenor YI LI (third-prize winner — $3,000) was hampered by rough French diction but showed off a very smooth lift to the top of his voice in "Pourquoi me réveiller." 

But for much of the day, the competition's unifying theme seemed to be how to drop the ball. Soprano CHLOÉ MOORE, who is showing up well in competitions (she was a third-prize winner in the Lissner) couldn't bring off the melting top tones in "Depuis le jour"; her voice is well trained but oddly unmoving. Tenor THEO LEBOW did nicely with La Traviata's "De' miei bollenti spiriti" until he (needlessly) took the second verse. Soprano D'ANA LOMBARD's "Qui la voce" displayed a distinctive timbre, and she has some good stylistic instincts, but she came to grief at the end. Mezzo JENNIFER FEINSTEIN (third prize) sang both Octavian and Dorabella in a big, monochromatic voice, with generalized interpretation. 

The Lissner judges vote their recommendation of top, first, second and third, and the competition's administration then assigns the actual awards. This year, a grand total of $198,000 was awarded to fifty-four young artists — a number of whom performed so poorly that I question whether they should have been awarded any money at all. 

I ALWAYS HAVE a favorite single moment at the OPERA NEWS AWARDS. At the 2010 Awards, it came when RENATA SCOTTO, presenting the award to PATRICIA RACETTE, apologized for her English, then made her way through a long and tricky list of Racette's American operas, ending with "and Carlisle Floyd's Cold-a Sassy Tree." (Someone in the back of the Plaza Ballroom shouted "Brava!" and Scotto brilliantly deadpanned "Grazie.") 

At this year's awards ceremony, held on April 29 at Manhattan's Plaza Hotel, my favorite moment stretched into about seven and a half memorable minutes — PETER SELLARS's acceptance speech (which can be viewed in its entirety at www.operanews.com).

As the video clips from various Sellars productions played, I was overwhelmed by the sensation of seeing a large, vital part of my operagoing past spin by. I remembered that after seeing Sellars's Le Nozze di Figaro at Pepsico Summerfare in 1988, one of my colleagues sniffed, "Well, it didn't change my life." I think this is key: many of us who work in the opera world were so busy looking for things to pick apart in what he was doing that we missed the fact that he was changing the entire opera landscape, in an intoxicating way. I came to opera in the years just after JOHN DEXTER's triumphant reign as the Metropolitan Opera's director of productions, and wondered if I would ever experience a similar creative explosion in opera. I didn't have to wait long: in 1985, I saw Sellars's stunning Giulio Cesare at Pepsico Summerfare (and encountered, for the first time, LORRAINE HUNT, whose performance as Sesto was so freshly thought out that I had no reference point for it at all). Later, I was fascinated by the power and invention he brought to the Mozart–da Ponte operas at Pepsico. Perhaps Così Fan Tutte was the most thoroughly realized of the three, but his Don Giovanni, despite its flattening out of the characters' contrasting social status, was the one that went into my DNA, knocking me out with the most intensely sexual reading of the opera I have ever experienced. I loved much of his Figaro too — particularly the moment in which the Countess (JAYNE WEST) sang "Porgi, amor" in such acute emotional pain that she literally could not get out of bed.

When Sellars — the first stage director to receive an OPERA NEWS Award — got up to the podium, he seemed amazed that he was in the room with host STEPHANIE BLYTHE and fellow honorees PETER MATTEI, DMITRI HVOROSTOVSKY, ANJA SILJA and KARITA MATTILA. "Nothing in my whole life prepared me for this ballroom," he said. Then he quietly, humbly spoke of the priceless privilege of doing the work that he does, with artists the caliber of Hunt, DAWN UPSHAW, JAMES MADDALENA, GERALD FINLEY and SANFORD SYLVAN. It was a beautiful expression of what makes him a great (and highly musical) director. He views himself as a genuine collaborator who has the good fortune to work with some of the most individual musical talents of our time. His best productions are like marvelous chamber works. I speak for all of my OPERA NEWS colleagues when I say it was a pleasure to honor someone who has brought such honor to his profession. spacer 

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