The All Gretchen Show

Yesterday afternoon and evening we heard all sixteen contestants in the preliminary round of the art song competition and the eight semifinalists were announced.  To try and keep things interesting I’m going to do three posts; one on the afternoon, one on the evening and one on the judging and other general observations.  The first was written between the afternoon and evening sessions yesterday and I haven’t updated it with later information.  The second will be based on my notes and I’ll try to ignore who the fact that at time of writing I know the results.  So here’s the first post about yesterday afternoon…


So the first eight singers in the art song competition have sung.  It’s a pretty strong field but there are some clear standouts I think.  We’ll see if the judges agree!

First up was American tenor David Tayloe with a program of Schubert, Finzi, Wolf and Poulenc.  It’s an English tenor sort of voice; a bit light but with good diction and clear attention to text.  But for me he’s a bit bright and bland.  Nothing wrong there but he just didn’t move me.

English soprano Suzanne Fischer was also very “English”.  I’m not sure the voice is quite fully integrated but she did a killer job on Britten’s Waly, Waly. This can be pretty trite but I found her version generated real emotion.  She was also the first of four singers to give us Gretchen am Spinnrade.  At least at this point Gretchen fatigue had yet to set in.


Julien van Mellaerts is a Kiwi baritone with both beauty and power in the voice.  He gave us some Ravel and then a thoughtful, nicely pointed account of Britten’s A Poison Tree.  Where he really shone though was in two very much contrasting German songs; a very lyrical version of Scubert’s Wandrers Nachtlied II was followed by a witty account of Wolf’s Abschied.  This was, as it should be, story telling in song.

Irina Jae-Eun Park is a Korean soprano.  Her first offering was Reimann’s setting of Sylvia Plath’s The Couriers.  If you are a brilliant musician with maybe not quite perfect English this is a really smart move.  Why try and compete with the Anglophones in perfect diction in Britten or Finzi when you can knock a gritty piece of German modernism, albeit with English lyrics, out of the park?  She was OK, if a bit operatic in Liszt’s Oh! Quand je dors and I couldn’t fathom a word of her French but her diction was much better in Gretchen am Spinnrade which also tended to the dramatic.


After the break we got French soprano Axelle Fanyo.  I thought she was out of place in the art song division.  It’s a good voice but it’s very operatic and everything seemed a bit overblown to me.  Her Gretchen am Spinnrade was even more operatic than Park’s.  Just not an art song voice for me.

Magali Simard-Galdès had the home town crowd rooting for her.  I liked her version of Debussy’s Nuit d’étoiles which she sang with excellent diction.  That Schubert aria actually sounded like art song in her hands and there was some nice story telling in Clarke’s The Seal Man.  That said, there’s a sort of strained quality at the upper end of her voice that grates a bit.


Than it was time for Rihab Chaieb.  OK I’m biased but I thought she was outstanding.  Her version of Bizet’s Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe was smokey mezzoness at its best.  Her Das Tod und das Mädchen was quite chilling.  Schumann’s Lust der Sturmnacht flashed sparks of fire and led nicely into a more restrained version of Howell’s King David.



English soprano Gemma Summerfield closed things out with quite a restrained set.  The Schubert this time was Ganymed and it was nicely and appropriately scaled.  She followed this with Britten’s Fish in the Unruffled lakes which I don’t know and I found a bit odd; not sure whether that’s the song or the singer.  Some Fauré closed quite an elegant and restrained set.


All eight pianists were very good but none struck me as obviously superior to the others.  I think the prize for best pianist will be very hard to poick!

And so, with eight singers done in the art song competition where do things stand.  For my money van Mellaerts and Chaieb are clear picks for the semis.  For the rest much may depend on how the jury thinks art song ought to be sung.  If they like dramatic/operatic then Park and maybe Fanyo may do well.  If they go for a more classically restrained approach I fancy the two British sopranos and, maybe, Simard-Galdes.  We shall see.

Photo credits: Tam Lan Truong

4 thoughts on “The All Gretchen Show

  1. Pingback: Lope Hernan Chacón: The All Gretchen Show – Lope Hernan Chacon

  2. Rihab is well into a career, a fully developed singer. (she is a star, in my books, already – she has that intangible thing that strikes you immediately) I think her agent is the same as Anne Sofie von Otter’s? She’s at Harrison Parrott, at any rate, and sang at the Met and Glyndebourne and Opera Philadelphia and I wonder why she’d still go to competitions. I guess to stand out? Gemma S, for ex, has the same agent as JDiddy, but if you look at her engagements, it’s mostly Bach solos and the odd recital so far. I somehow presume the competitions are for pre-agent, pre-big opera houses singers but it looks like that’s changing. What’s your feeling? We may soon see mid-career singers in competitions, who knows…

    • Brancy is pretty established too. And Emily D’À is on the way. $270k in prizes may be a factor! Also big overlap between CMIM and Wigmor comp. Beginnings of a “circuit”?

  3. This is a great topic-hmmm, future feature article in Opera Canada??? I’ve noticed the same…i.e. many of these singers are already getting great gigs, and wonderful for them as they more than deserve it for all their hard work but…who then are these competitions for? Some of the singers in this year’s CMIM were in the previous voice edition 3 years ago [Brancy – who I think won third prize then]. The $ is certainly a factor…and no doubt, even the more ‘advanced’ singers here are still paying off all their debts to universities/coaches/pianists etc. It’s an expensive life…

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