Over the last decade, the International Opera Awards ceremony has made huge strides in positioning itself as the leading arbiter of quality and success in the lofty world of opera. Now in its 11th year, the 2023 edition was held in Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki, home of the Polish National Opera, and took on significance beyond just music.
Last year’s prize for Opera Company of the Year was awarded jointly to the theatres of Odesa and Lviv which, against all odds, persevered with their opera schedule. Oksana Taranenko from Odesa Opera and Ballet did not mince her words, elaborating how her theatre had become an important place of love, protection, and belonging in a time “when your life is a lottery, and you don’t really know if you’re going to get up the next morning.” These Ukrainian opera houses have proven a bastion of stability during the war, offering relative safety, working generators, and functioning showers that many operagoers took advantage of.
Barrie Kosky, in a video recording from Berlin, argued that opera provided an “important ritual” in these “terrifyingly unstable times,” emphasizing the value of a mental escape, a moment to dream and forget about the world.
The economics of opera were also poignantly brought out. The representative of the double award-winning Dutch National Opera explained that its newly commissioned opera, Animal Farm by Alexander Raskatov, resulted in a 40% surge of new audiences to the house. Though George Orwell’s classic novella has assumed renewed topical relevance in this era of resurgent authoritarianism, it is heartening to report that opera can be relevant as well as engaging and attractive to new audiences.
The same house also won the award for Sustainability, while La Monnaie de Munt in Brussels won the award for Equal Opportunities and Impact, keen reminders that opera is not stuck in the 19th century.
In more traditional categories, Aigul Akhmetshina won best female singer and Michael Spyres best male singer of the year, while Opera magazine Readers’ Award went to Nadine Sierra.
Lisette Oropesa’s French Bel Canto Arias won best solo recording of the year, while Opera Rara won best complete opera recording for Mercadante’s Il Proscritto, a masterpiece that has not been heard for nearly 200 years.
Some awards raised eyebrows. Aix-en-Provence, a massive and lavishly funded opera and music festival, trounced smaller, more courageous and probably more deserving festivals in the category of Festival of the Year.
The Lifetime Achievement award for Marilyn Horne was of course more than deserved, but perhaps a little late in the game.
The International Opera Awards enjoy the full backing of London based Opera magazine, recently amplified by its takeover of Opera News, the occasionally combative mouthpiece of the Metropolitan Opera Guild of New York.
The ceremony’s host, Petroc Trelawny, well known from BBC Radio 3, adroitly led the evening through its paces, never missing a beat or losing track of time. Ukrainian conductor Andriy Yurkevych led the orchestra through a musical program emphasizing Polish composer Stanislaw Moniuszko and featuring young singers. Juliana Grigoryan easily dominated the arias with her mellifluous soprano.
But the real star of the evening was its host, Warsaw, and the enormous Teatr Wielki. The sprawling theatre complex and its large auditorium was rebuilt after the war in an impressive Soviet glamour style rich in marble, gilt and chandeliers. Waldemar Dabrowski, Director of the Polish National Opera, explained the importance of opera to the city and its residents, and also highlighted his country’s support for its embattled neighbour Ukraine.
The audience, overwhelmingly local, delighted in the many awards going to Polish nationals (a special mention of the young baritone Andrzej Filonczyk who flew in overnight from rehearsals at the Royal Opera House) and turned out in their finest evening wear. A generous afterparty showed the Poles at their most gracious.
Warsaw has clearly been rediscovered by tourism and a leading UK broadsheet recently declared it one of the coolest cities in Europe and the “Paris of the East.” With a palpable sense of optimism over growing prosperity and returning freedoms, the International Opera Awards ceremony was a worthy diva for this resplendent stage.
Ceremony attended in Warsaw on 9 November, 2023. The reviewer is a Trustee of Opera Rara. The expressed opinions are his own.
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