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On the Beat

On the Beat

For an Egyptian conductor, forging an international opera career proves a fearsome challenge; the Gerda Lissner Foundation awards $238,000 in singing prizes.
by BRIAN KELLOW

On the Beat Abbassi lg 715
Ace maestro Abbassi
Courtesy Nader Abbassi

When I first experienced NADER ABBASSI’s conducting at the inaugural Wilhelm Stenhammar International Music Competition in Norrköping, Sweden, in 2006, I assumed that he was on the brink of a major international opera career. Not only did he prove himself a smart and incisive talent-spotter during the ten days we judged the competition in Sweden, but at the winners’ concert, which received a national telecast, he seemed a masterly maestro, someone who could conduct a broad range of music with keen dramatic imagination, a telling sense of detail and a powerful command of the score’s architecture. Although he has enjoyed success in Switzerland and France and as music director of Cairo Opera (2002–2011), he has not yet made it onto the big international circuit. In 2012, he seemed about to break through when FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO, general and artistic director of Glimmerglass Opera, engaged him to lead her production of Aida, set in modern Egypt. The staging, which starred two rising young African–American singers, MICHELLE JOHNSON and NOAH STEWART, made for a high-profile U.S. debut. (Abbassi had a long history with Aida, having performed it as a bassoonist in the orchestra pit, sung the role of the King and made his conducting debut with the opera in 2002 at the pyramids in Giza.) 

Abbassi recounts that when Zambello called him to tell him she would like him to conduct Aida, the conversation became rather tense: she frankly admitted that she was nervous about how an Arab conductor might be accepted. Abbassi, who holds a Swiss passport, pointed out that his major professor and trusted adviser in college had been Jewish, but the idea of an Egyptian at Glimmerglass still seemed a somewhat dicey proposition. Two months later, after some gentle persuasion of the company’s powers-that-be, Zambello was able to offer Abbassi a contract. “It was a wonderful experience,” he recalls. 

Unfortunately, despite positive critical response, that Aida didn’t lead to much for Abbassi. “This is very delicate,” he told me in a recent telephone interview from Cairo. “I have conducted a number of times in France. At Opéra de Marseille in 2006, I did Maria Golovin. Menotti was there. Really good reviews. I also did Hamlet there, in 2010. Fantastic reviews. Usually, people are interested in good reviews, interested in engaging you to conduct elsewhere, or at least coming to talk to you. But it didn’t build to any other opera work. I am afraid it is because I am an Arab. I don’t give confidence. Why hire an Egyptian to conduct an Italian or German opera? But if you have any mediocre Italian, they think, ‘Okay — he can do Mascagni, because he’s Italian.’ If I were a European guy, it would be easier to engage me anywhere. And the problems of the Arabs are now all over the world. We are suffering terribly in Egypt, more than anyone in Europe or America, because of what is going on with the extremist Muslims. They are talking like we are all one, like we are all a danger, somehow. We are suffering as artists because of this political situation.” 

In October, Abbassi leads L’Orchestre pour la Paix — he’s its artistic director — in a concert at the United Nations in Geneva. The orchestra, which includes both Jews and Arabs, aims to unite young musicians to promote a peaceful dialogue among various cultures and religions.

At the final round of the GERDA LISSNER FOUNDATION’s annual competition on March 28 at Manhattan’s Liederkranz Hall, baritone JARRETT OTT (a $5,000 second-prize winner) gave a ravishing account of the Tanzlied from Korngold’s Tote Stadt. It was expressively sung and showed off Ott’s ability to “mix” the sound in the upper reaches of his voice. His performance moved me deeply. It was the only one of the day that did. 

There was plenty of vocal talent on display at the Lissner finals. (This year, the Foundation awarded $238,000 in prize money; many of the top prize-winners were presented at an April 12 concert at Zankel Hall, which I hosted.) But it was baffling how many seemed uninterested in even slightly raising the emotional stakes of what they were singing. The general level was so bland, so uninflected, that when soprano MARINA COSTA-JACKSON (a $15,000 top-prize winner) lit into a broad-stroked reading of “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” she almost seemed to be from a different species. 

Baritone REGINALD SMITH, JR., gave an exciting performance from Gruenberg’s Emperor Jones — an aria that has served as his winning ticket in most of the major New York competitions. (Smith also received $15,000 from the Lissner.) Mezzo J’NAI BRIDGES (first prize, $10,000) gave an ultra-polished performance of “O ma lyre immortelle,” and baritone SOL JIN offered a beautifully crafted, smooth-from-top-to-bottom “Di Provenza il mar.” 

Tenor MINGJIE LEI, a second-prize winner ($5,000), displayed charm and likability in addition to a lovely, sensitively deployed voice in “Una furtiva lagrima.” Countertenor RAY CHENEZ (grant winner, $2,000) had an excellent connection to text, superb vocal control and spotless diction in the refugee’s aria from Jonathan Dove’s Flight. There were some nice surprises among the works-in-progress, too. Baritone ROBERT BALONEK (third prize, $3,000) didn’t really land dead center vocally with “Hai già vinta la causa,” yet his performance was filled with carefully observed details, and he sang the notes distinctly: I’ve heard star performers who didn’t manage the triplets at the end of the aria half so neatly as Balonek did. But a message to all the finalists: it’s a competition. When you get up to sing, try giving it the gas. spacer 

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