There may be "No Kangaroos in Austria," (as many cheesy tourist t-shirts here advertise), but there are definitely Meistersängerinnen in Australia. The winner of last night's Meistersinger competition was Siobhán Stagg, a soprano from Melbourne who had been giving the orchestra goosebumps in every rehearsal with her rendition of Bellini's O quante volte.
***Note: the picture above is not Siobhán, but another of the finalists warming up during our morning dress rehearsal.
The Meistersinger competition began soon after the beginning of the festival and progressed through several eliminating rounds till the final eight contestants, plus two alternates, were presented in concert last night at the Helmut-List Halle. A panel of distinguished judges listened to each of the eight finalists and then left the stage to deliberate over a winner while the two alternates sang. After all ten singers had performed, the audience and orchestra were invited to vote for their own favorite on a paper ballot that had been distributed at the beginning of the concert. The ballots were collected by AIMS staff and as the orchestra commenced with Walter Piston's The Incredible Flutist, the results were tallied.
Over the course of the week, all us orchestra folks had overwhelmingly fallen in love with Siobhán. There are no adequate words to describe the smooth and penetrating quality of her voice, or the exquisite artistic timing she applied to every phrase, but whenever she sang it was impossible to do anything but gaze adoringly and submit to the waves of buttery tonefulness she sent permeating throughout the hall...her singing even made our little rehearsal gym at the Elisabethschule seem beautiful and resonant. Despite our confidence in Siobhán we were all sitting on pins and needles to see who would actually come out on top in the end. Every finalist delivered a superb performance and I was actually a little torn between Siobhán, Eliana Piedrahita--a Colombian soprano who absolutely sparkled through the virtuosic antics of Rossini's Una voce poco fa--and an incredible countertenor whose rendition of Mozart's Parto, parto, ah si ben mio surprised and thrilled us all.
A quirky little highlight for me was hearing Michelle Pretto sing Puccini's Vissi d'arte from Tosca. When the piece began, I was surprised to recognize the same melody and chord progression that accompanies Inigo Montoya in that scene from The Princess Bride where he's lost in a circle of trees and kneels down with his sword pointed to the sky and prays to his father to help him find the "man in black." I always have to smile when I find the source of a soundtrack...like when I discovered a portion of a triumphant theme from the Willow score is quite close to the opening of Schumann's Rhenish Symphony, or when I noticed how much of The Gladiator is taken directly from Holst's Mars.
After the final ecstatic notes of the Piston, the judges came back from their deliberations, the final vote count was turned in, and our artistic director Andrea Huber took the stage to announce the winners. She stressed that everyone who had sung that night was a winner and that all would likely go on to maintain long and illustrious operatic careers. Still, everyone knew there were artist agents and talent scouts in attendance, and that the pressure was on to see who'd gain the highest praise (as well as the hefty cash prize). When it was announced that Siobhán had won both the Meistersinger and the popular vote, the crowd erupted into thunderous applause. The orchestra accompanied the thrill with Strauss' Radetsky March and capped the night off with Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever...complete with a piccolo trio and a (somewhat grudgingly) standing brass section during the grandioso.
So...the 2011 AIMS festival is officially over. I'm leaving dark and early tomorrow morning (my ride to the airport departs at 4:00...ugh!) and will be back in Ithaca by dinnertime. Through all its ups and downs it has been a great summer and--though I have no idea what's going to happen over the course of this coming school year--right now I think I'd like to find a way to come back to Graz next summer.