Last week, the Richard Tucker Music Foundation announced that its Richard Tucker Award winner would be mezzo soprano Isabel Leonard.
Isabel Leonard is just about as charming and bubbly as it gets. I’ve never seen her live, but from all reports I hear, she’s animated and bouncy onstage and she has a great stage presence. I’ve listened to many live transmissions with her and I can account for her youthful energy and vigor to be palpable through the airwaves. She seems like the complete package for a 21st century opera singer.
Now me being me, I have a gripe. I always have a gripe.
The Richard Tucker Music Foundation honorees have always been young and promising singers on the verge of making it big around the world. In fact, their description of the award is “The Richard Tucker Award is conferred annually upon a single artist who has reached a high level of artistic accomplishment and who, in the opinion of a conferral panel, is on the threshold of a major international career.” With that statement, there’s something that implies that a singer has pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and worked all over the world, doing little things to lead up to bug debuts in big places. The problem I have with them giving the award to Leonard is that she has the massive machine(No, not The Machine) that is The Metropolitan Opera Working behind her. She did a series of Rosinas in 2010, did some more in English this past holiday season as well as The Tempest in October, and huge amounts of Mozart. That’s not all, since she’s scheduled as Blanche de la Force in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites in May. She’s obviously an artist heavily utilized by the Met, and for good reason. She is exactly the type of since the Met is trying to market to the new audiences of opera. But doesn’t Isabel Leonard already have such an established career at the Metropolitan Opera? The list of places she has sung go on and on like the Opera Nationale de Paris and the Bayerische Staatsoper. Isabel Leonard is no stranger to the world of international opera, and since most houses utilize a five year casting system, she’s probably booked in many other places as well. In fact, much of the press she’ll receive from opera companies from the Tucker award probably won’t show until three years from now at the earliest.
I’m confused by this choice because while Leonard is both a deserving and charming singer, there are many other singers of her caliber of artistry that are still working around in smaller houses, waiting for an international debut. These are the singers I thought the Tucker Gala picked.
An example that comes immediately to mind is soprano Jennifer Rowley. The American soprano has sung Musetta in Norway(With the famous Stefan Herheim production) and was recently called in as a replacement in Robert le Diable at ROH. Unfortunately, due to conflicts, she wasn’t able to perform in it. Shouldn’t singers like Jennifer Rowley be getting this extra push? Aren’t singers like Jennifer Rowley the ones who need this extra publicity? This is where I find fault in this year’s choice.
Also, the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition is happening with its finale in June. My personal favorite to win is Jamie Barton, the powerhouse mezzo from the U.S. ut we’ll have to see how the competition progresses.
I’m writing this piece as the opera twitter powers that be tweet gaily of the “Opera News Awards”, a night organized by the Met Opera Guild, who owns Opera News, where they give out some awards to people in the opera field. Which people, you may ask? None in particular, I reply.
The fault I find in the “Opera News Awards” is that they really don’t serve a purpose beyond the joy the person who is receiving it feels. They carry no specific connotation and don’t make an operatic community member more distinguished in any way. It’s really just a fancy dinner and party with many opera greats. Would you pay extra money to see a singer who won an “Opera News Award”?
Now, if these awards had a clear goal that was expressed not only through their nominees, but also through their mission statement, I would be more at peace. However, each year, they pick five different people in the opera world and celebrate the “distinguished achievements” that has made that person a mover, a shaker, or a life time achiever in this community. This wouldn’t be a problem for me, but each year the choices of winners are erratic and not cohesive.
Take this year’s nominee, Eric Owens for example. Owens is currently singing Alberich in the Met’s Rheingold and has been a fixture of the company for past seasons. At 42, the bass-baritone is debatably in his prime, and if all goes as planned with singers, he should still have another 20-30 years left on the operatic stage. With that much time left, anything can happen. How do we know that his contributions to the field of opera are lasting or memorable when not even the singer himself has had the opportunity to stand the test of time? It feels like we are celebrating a career, be it a sparkling and promising one, a little too prematurely.
At the same time, the award is being given this year to Mirella Freni(my favorite Desdemona). Shouldn’t a singer like Freni, who’s already retired and been a household name for the last 40+ years, be honored specially? What about Peter Sellars, the director who won in 2011 after only directing two productions at the Metropolitan Opera? Is this event about the overall field of opera or just about the Met? There’s no way of knowing since they never really tell us what their motives are. Maybe if the awards were divided up into categories, then we would be better able to navigate the winners.
Finally, tomorrow marks the first annual Opera Awards in London. The awards are for “Promoting excellence in opera and providing funding through The Opera Foundation for the operatic community”. It seems like a noble pursuit, and I wish them the best at their gala event tomorrow.
I love a good celebration as much as the next guy, especially when it’s a celebration of great art. However, I would like to know what great art I’m celebrating first.
There, you have my musings and complaints du jour. What these competitions and contests really boil down to, is celebrating great opera, and when opera’s really great, it deserves a celebration.