Limelight speaks to the tenor and to runner up Jessica Harper about what the competition means for their careers.
Tenor Boyd Owen has taken home the 2017 Sydney Eisteddfod Opera Scholarship, impressing the judges with his performances of Donizetti’s Ah! mes amis and Puccini’s Che gelida manina. In addition to the scholarship worth $35,000, Owen will receive a further $5000 cash and airfares to the value of $3000 to see him study abroad. In the past, the prize has gone to opera stars including Dame Joan Sutherland, Kiri Te Kanawa, Stuart Skelton, and Nicole Car.
“When they announced my name as the winner I must admit there was an avalanche of emotion as I have won very few competitions in the past… there was such a mixture of relief, disbelief, exhaustion, pride, happiness and deep gratitude that I actually started to cry,” Owen told Limelight. “I will remember that moment my whole life”.
A runner up in 2016, Owen spent many months preparing for this year’s competition, work that has obviously paid off. “From the smallest note and rest lengths, dynamic and tempo markings, to every language nuance, I tried as much as I could to thoroughly understand and prepare it all. I compared various recordings and singers’ interpretations of the different styles. I rehearsed with a pianist when I could afford it and even rehearsed in my suit tails and stage shoes to get my body used to every experience it might have on the day. This work, coupled with many years of other experiences in competitions, came together to give me an amazing sense of freedom and calmness during the performance.”
Presenting the judges with two of opera’s most cherished tenor arias, not to mention the treacherous nine high C’s of Ah! mes amis, was not a casual decision for Owen. “Repertoire choice is absolutely fundamental in a career and especially in a singing competition. For years in recitals and competitions I chose repertoire that was far too difficult or too big for me vocally,” he said. “I felt I needed to prove to the judges I could climb some kind of vocal ‘Mount Everest’. In fact, all this did was make me so nervous I would lose my breath management and fail to convey anything interesting… I’ve now learned to choose pieces that really suit my voice and my stage of development and leave the other difficult options for later when I’m ready”.
With the help of his singing teacher, Owen carefully considered how best to “show a good mix of styles, languages and characters”. He hopes to use the prize money to tackle the roles he has been asked to learn but has never had the time to. “Now I can take some serious time to just focus on in-depth study as once I’ve learned the roles as much as I can I will go to Europe to polish them with specialist coaches and conductors,” he said. “Without the scholarship there’s no way I could do this.”
Soprano Jessica Harper, who took out second place, was awarded $5000 as well as the Audience Vote worth $500. Harper sang Dis-moi que je suis belle from Massenet’s Thäis and Non mi dir from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Like Boyd, Harper gave her aria selections considerable thought, explaining that “in a competition final of this calibre, you try to show off absolutely everything you can do, so choosing two vastly different styles and languages is always a good bet.”
Soprano Jessica Harper. Photo © WinkiPoP Media.
“The performance itself felt absolutely amazing,” Harper told Limelight. “There comes a point when you know your music so intimately, that it just becomes part of you, and you can go out there and just tell the story without worrying about your technique or language. I am very attached to both Thaïs and Donna Anna as characters – they are both incredibly fierce and strong women.”
Harper is keen to use the prize money to further her language studies, looking to move to Europe soon. “I am currently learning Italian at the Instituto Italiano di Cultura and German at the Goethe Institut respectively,” she said. “I would love to sink my teeth into some Czech and Russian study, and continue my French study when I can. Of course I will also be using the money to continue my singing lessons”.