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24 Apr 2013

Opera Awards, London 2013

A brand new award to promote opera has been unveiled in London.

The Opera Awards were founded by John Allison (editor of Opera Magazine) and Harry Hyman (of the Nexus Group) to promote opera as an art form, to widen the audience for opera and recognise opera throughout the world. An additional aim was to raise money for a new fund which will provide bursaries to young performers. The inaugural awards took place on 22 April 2013 at London’s Hilton Hotel on Park Lane, To an audience of over 700, awards were presented in 22 categories, the range and depth of the nominations indicating the seriousness of the awards’ intent. Many of the nominees attended the awards, giving an opportunity to rub shoulders with well known opera professionals such as Joyce DiDonato, Sarah Connolly, Jonas Kaufmann and Antonio Pappano was well as such eminent luminaries as Dame Janet Baker and Sir George Christie (of Glyndebourne Opera).

My evening started with a pair of interviews. First of all Nicky Spence, a young Scottish tenor who is the ambassador for the awards. Spence has been making a name for himself recently in Europe and will be making his Metropolitan Opera debut in the autumn in Nico Muhly’s Two Boys. Spence raised a point which was echoed many times during the evening, that these are the first awards to have opera at their centre, and they are dedicated to all aspects of opera. He also praised the way that the new fund would provide bursaries for young singers in a time of ‘wartime rations for the arts’.

But for Spence, a singer of great personal charm, the awards were also a chance to socialise, commenting that ‘As opera is a huge family its great to be able to catch up with the opera community as a whole. Nice to put your glad rags on without the prospect of having to avenge your Father’s murder or pretend to make love to a baritone.’

Next I was lucky enough to be able to interview mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, one of the nominees for in the Female Singer category. She commented how lovely it was to be involved in the awards at the ground level, participating in a year which will help define the awards in the future. The seriousness of the awards was indicated by the range of those who had been nominated and that it was an honour to be included.

We also talked about how this is something of a Scottish year for DiDonato, she has recently performed the title role in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda at the Metropolitan Opera, she will shortly be singing Elena in a new production of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago at Covent Garden and will return to the role of Maria Stuarda next season, this time at Covent Garden. DiDonato finds that repeating such roles, especially with different directors, helps her to deepen her characterisation. When asked what her ideal role would be she promptly said Scarpia, then laughed, adding that she currently has her hands full getting to do so many wonderful things. But that she would like to do more dramatic Rossini.

Just before the awards dinner I caught up with British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly (also a nominee for the Female Singer category). She commented that earlier on she too had been asked about her dream job, but that she was doing it already. Connolly’s year has included Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Medee (both for English National Opera) and Fricka in Der Ring des Nibelungen at Covent Garden.

Before and after dinner, entertainment was provided by young singers from the National Opera Centre. The ballroom at the Hilton Hotel is not an ideal acoustic but we heard some fine young voices in music by Rossini, Bizet and Offenbach.

Then it was time for the main event, the awards themselves.

Harry Hyman talked of how he had founded the awards to promote opera as an art-form, to widen the audience, to recognise opera throughout the world and to set up the bursary programme. He commented that the timing could not have been worse. But it was important and urgent now that the arts were under pressure, that there was a real need to celebrate artistic success, to make opera more approachable and to thank those who make opera possible through philanthropy. He commended the three main elements which had made the awards possible, the high quality of the entries, the rigorous judges and the generous sponsors.

John Allison said that the aim of the awards was to be as international as possible. Though each country had its own particular challenges, there was one topic in common - money. But that playing safe led to artistic poverty. The awards wanted to celebrate diversity, new and emerging artists needed support and they wished to celebrate great performers. Of course, though they could not recognise all areas they wished to also include the unsung and the non-singing. He finished with a fascinating thought, that great art requires risk taking and that if a company did not fail a few times it wasn’t trying enough.

The awards were presented by Nicholas Owen who presents a programme on the radio station Classic FM. The recipients made no speeches, with Owen simply providing a summary of the judges’ comments.

The Readers Award went to Jonas Kaufmann, who collected the award in person. The Award for World Premiere went to George Benjamin’s Written on Skin which was premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012.

The Young Singer award went to British soprano Sophie Bevan, who collected her award in person. She was described as having a lovely voice and an engaging personality with a commitment to giving a dramatic performance. Another young professional, conductor Daniele Rustioni, described as having great leadership potential, received the Newcomer Conductor or Director award.

Netherlands Opera’s production of Rimsky Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, received the new production award. The judges thought it the production of a lifetime, brilliantly executed by cast, chorus and orchestra.

The CD (Complete Opera) award went to Handel’s Alessandro on Decca, conducted by George Petrou. The CD Recital award went to Christian Gerhaher’s Romantic Arias which in the judges’ opinion married a peerless voice with meticulous programming and the singer’s quiet communication.

Cape Town Opera received the Chorus award. The judges commended the energy and commitment of the chorus, showing why a chorus can be the backbone of any company. The Conductor award went to Sir Antonio Pappano whose versatility, wide range of repertoire and his inspiring of a wide range of singers were commented on by the judges.

The Metropolitan Opera won the Access award. The judges referred to the way the Met was extending its reach and brand, creating a life-line to opera where opera is seldom performed.

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden’s DVD of Puccini’s Il Trittico, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano and directed by Richard Jonas, on Opus Arte, won the DVD award. For the judges it captured and enhanced the vivid contrasts of an integrated ensemble.

The Lighting Design award went to Paule Constable who was described as a painter in light in the service of the director and the piece. Antony McDonald won the Set Designer award. For the judges he was one of the best designers around, creating striking, beautiful, dramatically potent designs. Costume Design award went to Buki Schiff, commended for her fantastically inventive style and attention to details.

The Festival award went to the Salzburg Festival which the judges thought had injected a new dynamic into one of the oldest and most prestigious festivals. The Philanthropist award was received by Sir Peter Moores for his 50 years of support for innovation in opera, accessibility and the opening of doors, making opera possible.

The Rediscovered Work was Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s David et Jonathas performed by Les Arts Florissants. The Orchestra Award, presented by Dame Janet Baker, went to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. The orchestra was described as consistently good and rising to new heights. The Opera Company award went to Oper Frankfurt, a prime example today of a proper ensemble revitalised for the 21 century.

Jonas Kaufmann collect his second award, for Male Singer, being described a phenomenon for his intelligence, range of vocal colours and wide range of roles. Female singer went to Nina Stemme, an astonishingly versatile artist and the world’s leading Wagnerian soprano.

The lifetime achievement award went to Sir George Christie who was chairman of Glyndebourne Opera from 1958 to 1999. In his speech of thanks Sir George said that the award meant a great deal to him, coming from jurors who were also critics who had on many occasions taken him to task. he also thanked his wife and his parents, Sir John and Lady Christie, who founded Glyndebourne.

Robert Hugill

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