DEBUT 2020: Karolina Bengtsson wins

The Golden Victoria was won by Karolina Bengtsson. Second and third prize went to Katleho Mokhoabane and Modestas Sedlevicius.

For the first time, the number of up-and-coming singers submitting applications – from 47 countries this year – exceeded 400, and the spacious TauberPhilharmonie in Weikersheim was the ideal location for the grand gala concert and presentation of the prizes. The audience size was limited, which meant that no tickets went on sale to the general public. However, as a small consolation for opera fans, a recording of the concert will be broadcast on SWR2 radio at 8 p.m. on September 27.

Like at the last gala concert two years ago, the host for the evening was Felix Seibert-Daiker, the journalist and TV anchorman who grew up in Bad Mergentheim; he introduced the young artists with great empathy, helping each one to overcome possible stage fright upfront of their actual performance. During his opening remarks he took a deep breath at one point and commented, “It’s the first time since March that I’ve stood on a stage and it’s a fantastic feeling”.

Quick consensus among the judging panel

Quite unlike at previous competitions and also at the lieder recital last Thursday, the distinguished and very heterogeneous panel, chaired by Anna Larsson of Sweden, reached an agreement on the winners so that the “white smoke” appeared in record time. Nor was there any prolonged agonizing by the other judging panel members at the gala concert: Adrian Kelly (conductor and Director of Zurich International Opera Studio), Professor Stephan Mösch (musicologist and theater historian), Eitan Sorek (Sorek Artists Management), Professor Gerd Uecker (former Manager of the Semperoper opera house in Dresden), Eva Wagner-Pasquier (theater manager) and Evamaria Wieser (casting director).

After all, they already had spent considerable time with the young artists during the competition week and become acquainted with their strengths and weaknesses. Out of the original 33 candidates, 16 particularly talented singers were selected for the semifinal, among them the 6 finalists.  
Freya Apffelstaedt (South Africa), Karolina Bengtsson (Sweden), Dániel Foki (Hungary), Katleho Mokhoabane (South Africa), Niamh O‘Sullivan (Ireland) and Modestas Sedlevicius (Lithuania) were the lucky ones.  

Firm foundation provided by the orchestra

The aria performances were characterized by powerful stage presence and generally harmonious tonal modulation, for which Music Director Enrico Calesso provided a firm foundation with just 36 musicians. One novelty attributable to the pandemic was the halving of the string section, which is normally the musical backbone of any classical symphony orchestra. On the other hand, the number of string players – together with the two flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, not forgetting the timpani – was virtually the same as in the original line-up which Beethoven assembled especially for his “Coriolan” Overture in C minor (Op. 62). 

This relatively seldom performed work was the Philharmonic’s choice in honor of the great composer, whose 250th birthday has not been commemorated to the degree one would have wished, among other things at this year’s decimated Mozart Festival Würzburg. Around the world, large-scale celebrations have had to be canceled. Inspired by Collin’s theater play of the same name, Coriolan is Beethoven’s only overture to end in tragedy; the music deals with the fate of the hero, Coriolanus, in the ancient Roman class struggle between the plebeians and the patricians. The conflicts of conscience – alternating between pride, defiance and rebellion – make contrasting themes audible until, finally, the guilt-stricken hero perishes surrounded by an atmosphere of gloom and tragedy.

Stunning performances by the finalists

Fortunately, fate was much kinder to the finalists, who were introduced by Felix Seibert-Daiker and quickly won the hearts of the audience. 

The first singer to face the judging panel’s critical verdict was Dániel Foki of Hungary, who is presently a member of the music theater ensemble at the Staatstheater Cottbus. With his powerful yet velvety baritone and vocal stability, he opened with Count Almaviva’s recitative and aria “Hai già vinta la causa” from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”, followed by Sir Riccardo Forth’s aria “Or dove fuggo io mai” from the Bellini opera “I puritani”. It was instantly clear why he had already won two DEBUT lieder prizes on the Thursday. He was rewarded that evening with Gottlob Frick Society performance prizes amounting to 3000 euros.

Swedish-born Karolina Bengtsson, who today lives in Austria, gave an overwhelmingly heart-rendering performance of Marzelline’s aria “O wär ich schon mit dir vereint” (If only I were already united with thee) from Beethoven’s sole opera “Fidelio” as well as Pamina’s aria “Ach, ich fühl’s” (Ah, I feel it) from Mozart’s “Magic Flute”. The range of emotions, extending from shouting with joy to dying of sorrow, was so appealingly recreated by her lyrically clear and finely tuned soprano voice that the judging panel subsequently awarded first place to 23 year-old Bengtsson, the youngest out of all the finalists, who was delighted to receive the Golden Victoria and 10,000 euros in prize money.

Niamh O’Sullivan, the Irish mezzo-soprano presently studying at the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich, showcased herself with Isabella’s aria “Cruda sorte” from Gioachino Rossini’s opera “L’Italiana in Algeri” and Carmen’s passionately sung aria “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” from Act One of George Bizet’s opera “Carmen”. The latter entrance aria is one of the most famous and most popular pieces of all in opera repertoire. The audience’s approval was evident right from the very first notes of the string accompaniment, and there will be another chance to hear O’Sullivan sing again next year in Weikersheim. Her smile was enchanting as she confessed to feeling “like a princess” in the castle gardens, was awarded a scholarship from Jeunesses Musicales Deutschland. The grant is tied to a role at the “Young Opera Schloss Weikersheim 2021” festival, which will take place in the historic courtyard with – surprise, surprise – the Irish singer as “Carmen”, accompanied by the first-class German National Youth Orchestra.

After hearing him at the lieder recital, Felix Seibert-Daiker admitted to being a great fan of Katleho Mokhoabane. The South African tenor performed Bemorino’s “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s opera “L’elisir d’amore” with seemingly playful ease. He mastered the entire range from “clear as a bell” to “earthy and sonorous”. Having missed out at the lieder recital, he was rewarded by the judging panel for his convincing performances at the gala concert with the Silver Victoria plus 7500 euros in prize money.

Freya Apffelstaedt, a native of Cape Town, is currently a student at the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich. An alto, she was runner-up in this year’s Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy university competition. Her interpretation of the aria “Ah, Tanja, Tanja!” from Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin” as well as Charlotte’s aria “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes” from “Werther” by Jules Massenet was sensitive and lyrically inspired. These moving performances won her a prize of 5000 euros from the Herbert Hillmann and Margot Müller Foundation in Würzburg.

The last candidate for the evening brought the gala concert to a thrilling conclusion. With several other successful competitions behind him, 33 year-old Modestas Sedlevicius from Lithuania is now closer than ever to his dream of a career on the opera stage and as a lieder recitalist. His spectacular rendition of Figaro’s aria of self-congratulation “Largo al factorum della città” from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” earned him thunderous applause in the TauberPhilharmonie – not just for his phenomenal singing but also on account of his remarkable feat of vibrating his body, including the eyebrows, in time to the music with ironic undertones. “Figaro” has probably never been done that way before. As the winner of two prizes for his baritone performance, he was not overly disappointed at the lack of an audience prize this year.

Modestas Sedlevicius came away with the Bronze Victoria as well as 5000 euros in cash, and people in Würzburg are already looking forward to his debut role at the Main-Franconia Theater. He was presented with this special prize donated by the Philharmonic Orchestra, by Music Director Enrico Calesso. 

The closing address at what was a thoroughly successful evening was given by Dr. Manfred Wittenstein, Chairman of the WITTENSTEIN SE Supervisory Board and initiator of the DEBUT project back in 2002, who was visibly moved: “The arts sustain us as humans; they help us all to survive”.                                                                                                                                                                           

PICTURES (all ©DEBUT Concerts GmbH / photographer Ludwig Olah):

01-debut-gruppenfoto-sieger: The winners of DEBUT 2020 (from left to right): Modestas Sedlevicius (Bronze Victoria), Karolina Bengtsson (winner of the Golden Victoria) and Katleho Mokhoabane (Silver Victoria).

02-debut-gruppenfoto-sieger-mit-wittenstein: Dr. Manfred Wittenstein, Chairman of the WITTENSTEIN SE Supervisory Board (2nd from right) with the three winners of DEBUT 2020.

03-debut-siegerin: Karolina Bengtsson, winner of the Golden Victoria 2020

04-debut-orchester: The Würzburg Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Enrico Calesso, provided a firm foundation for the singers with just 36 musicians.

05-debut-orchester: The Würzburg Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Enrico Calesso, provided a firm foundation for the singers with just 36 musicians.

06-debut-orchester-und-bengtsson: DEBUT winner 2020: Karolina Bengtsson’s lyrically clear and finely tuned soprano voice made a particular impression on the judging panel.

07-debut-orhester-und-sedlevicius: Third-placed Modestas Sedlevicius received thunderous applause in the TauberPhilharmonie.

08-debut-wittenstein-seibert-daiker-calesso: From left to right: Dr. Manfred Wittenstein (Chairman of the WITTENSTEIN SE Supervisory Board and initiator of the DEBUT project back in 2002), presenter Felix Seibert-Daiker and Music Director Enrico Calesso.
 

PICTURES (all ©DEBUT Concerts GmbH / photographer Felix Röttger):

09-debut-sieger-auf-bühne: The proud and happy winners of DEBUT 2020 display their Victoria trophies together with the accompanying Würzburg Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor, Music Director Enrico Calesso (right). From left to right: Modestas Sedlevicius (Lithuania), Katleho Mokhoabane (South Africa) and Karolina Bengtsson (Sweden).

10-debut-siegerin: A Figaro with vibrating eyebrows: Modestas Sedlevicius’ rendition of the aria of self-congratulation earned him the Bronze Victoria and cash prize.

11-debut-o-sullivan: Niamh O’Sullivan, the Irish mezzo-soprano, felt “like a princess” in the gardens of Weikersheim Castle. Next year, all the spotlights will be on her when she sings “Carmen” at the “Young Opera Schloss Weikersheim” festival.

12-debut-bengtsson: Karolina Bengtsson, the Swedish soprano, came through the qualifying rounds with tremendous modesty, bordering on humility, yet with her excellent performance in the final she fully deserved to win the Classical Singing Competition DEBUT 2020.

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