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On the Beat

On the Beat

Luxury casting in Hamburg's Arabella: Cheryl Studer and Sumi Jo; the George London winners spin plenty of vocal gold. by BRIAN KELLOW

On the Beat Sumi Jo sm 514
Sumi Jo: helping hand to the next generation

CAMILLA NYLUND sings the title role in next month's SVEN-ERIC BECHTOLF production of Arabella at Hamburg State Opera, but the opera fanatic's eye may gravitate to a pair of names in the supporting cast — CHERYL STUDER as Adelaide and SUMI JO as Fiakermilli. Both women gave operagoers more than their share of pleasure during the 1990s, but both have been absent from U.S. opera houses for some time. 

Studer resides in Würzburg, where she holds a professorship at the local university. "My whole family is here," she said during a telephone interview in mid-February. "It's a small city — a town — and it's extremely safe, because they train young policemen and policewomen here. There's almost no big crime here at all." She has a long history with Arabella, having sung the title role for the first time at Covent Garden in 1996. "I had to learn Arabella within two or three weeks," she remembers, "because I jumped in for someone. The first time I had a bit of difficulty with it. It was a little bit lyrical — very different from the Kaiserin, which had jumps and a different kind of energy — or Chrysothemis. Those things suited my voice better."

Recently, Studer has been working on Kundry and Herodias, and she'll be singing Madame de Croissy in Dialogues des Carmélites at an opera house in Austria (she declines at this early stage to name which one) next February. Because she works without an agent, she has no work lined up in the U.S. "But I'd love to do a Mahler Second or a Gurrelieder. They know where to contact me — it's not like I'm hiding!"

Fiakermilli may be a short role, but Sumi Jo points to its distinguished performance history, noting, "It was performed by both EDITA GRUBEROVA and LUCIA POPP." She feels that her voice is in "top condition. I have developed my lower and middle register along with my high notes, and my coloratura technique is in best shape. I have tried to keep to maestro HERBERT VON KARAJAN's caring suggestion when I made my opera debut — not to sing high notes too much, since it can harm the vocal cords. His warm-hearted suggestion has made me maintain my best condition." Rather than continue to focus on coloratura pyrotechnics, she hopes to get to sing more of the romantic bel canto roles she feels show off her voice at its best — Lucia, Amina, etc. 

Although she recently completed a brief U.S. concert tour, Jo is mostly occupied with recitals in Asia, Russia and South America. "I have not neglected opera," she points out; after ending her run in Arabella, she will star in Donizetti's seldom-performed farce Le Convenienze ed Inconvenienze Teatrali in Florence. She's also spending more time in music education, working in tandem with Korea's Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to help teachers deliver classical music into the classroom. "Even though the history of classical music in Asia is short compared to that of Europe," she says, "I think it's growing rapidly and produces good talents over a short time. I am hoping to see more Asian talents performing in the near future, and I am proud to be one of the helping hands." 

WHEN I COVER a voice competition, I prefer to be on hand for as much of the semifinals as my schedule permits. I like to see how the week progresses up to the selection of the finalists and the winners concert; it gives me a greater sense of the talent pool, as well as, sometimes, the preoccupations of the jurors. Thanks to the intrusion of President's Day, I missed two days of the semifinals of the GEORGE LONDON FOUNDATION AWARDS COMPETITION, so this year's report is not so complete as I'd like. 

My most exciting discovery was Canadian soprano JESSICA STRONG. She's a lyric coloratura with a big, beautiful sound who sang a wonderfully imaginative and spontaneous "Bel raggio lusinghier"; Strong showed a solid command of bel canto style and proved she knew how to bring out the music's elasticity. (She was also impressive in "Robert, toi que j'aime," from Robert le Diable, which she reprised during the London finals concert at the Morgan Library on February 20.) I also liked lyric mezzo CATHERINE MARTIN, who gave us a tremendous play of vocal light and dark in La Favorita's "O mio Fernando," and soprano KIRI DEONARINE, who, with her incredibly facile coloratura, rang all the bells in the bell song from Lakmé. (This aria, however, tends to outstay its welcome in a competition, where ideally the selections should be shorter.) Baritone JARRETT OTT gave a beautifully judged account of Billy Budd's "Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray"; with his attractive timbre and crystalline (but never precious) diction, he could probably clean up in Britten engagements alone. Soprano REBECCA PEDERSEN sang a playful and engaging czardas from Die Fledermaus, and the huge-voiced baritone REGINALD SMITH, JR., gave a vivid account of Ford's "È sogno? O realtà," from Falstaff. Martin, Pedersen and Smith each received a $1,000 Encouragement Award, but Strong, Deonarine and Ott went home empty-handed. 

No complaints at all about this year's big winners. George London prizes of $10,000 each went to mezzo JENNIFER JOHNSON CANO, who made an excellent impression with the Composer's aria from Ariadne auf Naxos; RAY CHENEZ, winning this year's countertenor sweepstakes with a beautifully etched rendition of the Refugee's aria from JONATHAN DOVE's Flight; soprano TRACY COX, with "Dich, teure Halle"; the superb baritone NORMAN GARRETT, with "Vision fugitive," from Massenet's Hérodiade; RYAN SPEEDO GREEN, who put his evenly produced bass-baritone to brilliant use in a lively "Solche hergelaufne Laffen," from Die Entführung aus dem Serail; soprano MARINA HARRIS, who gave an amazingly finished and delicate performance of Lohengrin's "Einsam in trüben Tagen"; and baritone CAMERON MCPHAIL, whose account of Rodrigue's death scene from Don Carlos showed off a fine voice with a solid core and sophisticated dramatic instincts. spacer

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