United States A Tribute to Speight Jenkins Dovetails with Wagner Competition
Recently Seattle was an orgy of tributes, in music and speech, to Speight Jenkins, who is retiring after 31 years at the helm of Seattle Opera. The festivities included a gala concert and the International Wagner Competition, which the impresario from Texas inaugurated in 2006.
The competition, with nine dozen singers participating, came first, then the gala on Saturday night (August 9), both at McCaw Hall, the building in which Jenkins played a major role. These two events were in lieu of the annual summer opera or operas, when it is a “Ring” year. The singers in the competition were new to Seattle and those in the gala were mostly old hands. That said, the most famous singers who have appeared on the Seattle Opera stage, excepting Stephanie Blythe, were absent because they had retired or were otherwise engaged. But those who did appear performed with fervor. This was not a night to be holding back. The audiences in the sold-out houses clapped with great gusto and often gave standing ovations for good measure. Both events, plus some miscellaneous cocktail parties and a black-tie dinner, raised a cool $1 million.
Both concerts were well-staged. Singers came and went with alacrity but there was never a hint of tedium or deja vu. A handsome lot, the performers were dressed in their finest—women in long dresses and men in formal white tie. The set was a kind of art gallery with a faux Richard Serra sculpture, tall and imposing, in the center surrounded by glass pieces and large paintings on the sides, all symmetrical. The decor came from Robert Dahlstrom who designed it for Seattle Opera’s production of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. The orchestra, conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing and Carlo Montanaro, was in splendid shape, as was the Seattle Opera Chorus. Mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle, well-known in these waters, acted as a kind of master of ceremonies at the gala. She was predictably amusing and diverting.
One might think 23 arias, duets, quartets and ensembles, one after the other, might become tiresome, but there was sufficient variety to make everything seem fresh and appealing. Wagner opened and closed each half: the first scene from Act II of Die Walküre and the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde opened and closed the portion before intermission, and “Entry of the Guests” from Tannhauser and the magnificent chorus “Wach’ auf!” from Die Meistersinger ended the evening.
Squeezed in between were all sorts of glories like the Act I finale of Walküre, the death of Boris from Boris Godunov, “Pace, pace, mio Dio” from La Forza del Destino, Lensky’s “Kuda, kuda” from Eugene Onegin, and “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca. Whipping up a souffle was Kate Lindsey, singing “Non piu mesta” from Cenerentola with virtuosic flair. Bringing tears to everyone’s eyes (or least mine) was Wotan’s Farewell from Walküre, sung with vocal splendor by Greer Grimsley. The duets were memorable, especially “J’ai gravi la montagne” from Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah, sung with aplomb and grandeur by Blythe and Grimsley. A kind of surprise, and a pleasant one, was Issachah Savage’s reading of “Mein lieber Schwan” from Lohengrin. The young singer was not scheduled to sing, but his performance in the Wagner Competition two nights earlier was so compelling—winning three of the four prizes offered—he was added at the last minute to Saturday’s concert.
The gala was a moving tribute to Jenkins not only because of sentiment but also because the music and music-making were extraordinary.
The Wagner Competition is one of Jenkins’ innovations. It has been held three times, bringing attention of young singers who have progressed subsequently to substantial careers. They are not just starting off, but in the early stages of their professional lives. Already the young singers are remarkably poised. The repertory was familiar, of course, with the exception being the aria “Gerechter Gott” from Wagner’s early opera Rienzi, sung by Tamara Manici—a canny choice who gave it dramatic impetus. There were also sorts of pleasures along the way, including Savage’s “Mein lieber Schwan” and “Amfortas! Die Wunde” from Parsifal. For that he won a first prize and $25,000 and $5,000 each for the audience prize and orchestra prize, respectively. David Danholt was the other first-prize winner, also at $25,000, with arias from Parsifal and Die Meistersinger.
Needless to say, the two events were bittersweet because of Jenkins’ retirement. He has been a potent force at Seattle Opera, giving the company a national profile it did not have previously. He will be missed.