A harvest of song

Photos: Arne Weychardt
Happy reunion in Salzburg: Liz Mohn with Rachel Frenkel (left) and Julia Novikova (right).

Even outside the “Neue Stimmen” International Singing Competition, Liz Mohn finds ways to promote talented young opera singers. As she travels the world in her role as vice-chairwoman of the Bertelsmann Stiftung Executive Board, she makes an effort to get together with former contestants when their paths cross – as they did a few years ago in Salzburg.

Salzburg, back in August 2012: Three weeks ago, Julia Novikova was singing in London at Plácido Domingo’s invitation. Now, she sits on a hotel terrace in Salzburg, giving an interview. At this year’s Salzburg Festival, the Russian soprano won praise as the magical Queen of the Night in Alexandra Liedtke’s revival of The Labyrinth – Part Two of The Magic Flute. It is Novikova’s second consecutive engagement at the festival. Just 28 years old, she is already celebrated in opera circles as an exceptional talent.
Born in St. Petersburg and now making her way onto the world stage, this young singer owes her discovery in part to a woman sitting just yards away from her in the hotel restaurant. Liz Mohn is actually in town for the Salzburg Trilogue, where she is joining 29 scholars, business leaders and politicians to discuss the topic of sustainable economic growth. But while the other participants linger over lunch, the vice-chairwoman of the Bertelsmann Stiftung Executive Board has excused herself. It has to do with another Bertelsmann Stiftung project, one that is dear to her heart: the “Neue Stimmen” International Singing Competition. Three former prizewinners are here in Salzburg, and despite her busy schedule Mohn won’t miss the opportunity to have a quick visit.
Novikova is one of them. Mohn embraces her warmly: “It’s so good to see you! How are you?” she asks, inviting the singer to join her on a sofa in the hotel’s winter garden. Ever since the Russian soprano won the 2007 People’s Choice Award in Gütersloh, Mohn and her Bertelsmann Stiftung team have followed the soprano’s career.

Promoting young opera singers

“Neue Stimmen” gave Novikova’s career a crucial boost. She made her first contacts with agents and a short time later she sang the Queen of the Night at the Frankfurt Opera. Engagements followed in Vienna, Hamburg and Berlin. After her meeting with Mohn, Novikova returns, visibly excited – their conversation has inspired her. “As an opera singer, sometimes I ask myself: What am I doing here? Is this a meaningful career? After all, we singers aren’t discovering a cure for cancer. We don’t even bake bread,” she says. “But Mrs. Mohn pointed out that nobody can live without music. She said music can even help people recover after having a stroke. Hearing that from such an important woman made me very happy. At moments like this, I know why I stand on the opera stage.”

Hired on the spot

Mohn is also meeting with Rachel Frenkel, who took sixth place at “Neue Stimmen” in 2009. The Israeli too then went on to her first major engagement when Dominique Meyer, director of the Vienna State Opera and chairman of the jury, hired the mezzo-soprano on the spot. “That was a huge opportunity,” Frenkel says. One she made the most of, later performing in New York, Budapest and Tokyo. She now travels the world with her composer husband and their two-year-old daughter Ruth. “I’m happy that my family can always be with me,” she says. Last year, during her debut at the Salzburg Festival, she sent Mohn a postcard. “I was so delighted to be there, and I wanted to share that feeling with her,” the singer explains. The “Neue Stimmen” founder took the time to write back. “I could tell how proud she is of my success,” Frenkel says. “She takes it very seriously.”

Born in Israel, Rachel Frenkel placed sixth in the 2009 “Neue Stimmen” competition. Dominique Meyer, director of the Vienna State Opera, immediately hired the mezzo-soprano.

A winning second attempt

Another voice that moves Liz Mohn is that of Michael Volle. It was in 1991 when the baritone sang his way to second place in Gütersloh. Now, living in Switzerland, he still remembers just how nervous he was: “It was my second time participating. I had also competed in 1989, when the Iron Curtain was coming down, which resulted in a wave of high-level performers such as René Pape sweeping through. Those of us from the West had a hard time measuring up and I went away empty-handed, although I was allowed to return in 1991. A flock of agents and directors were there, and we were being accompanied by an orchestra – so my knees were knocking.” After the prizewinners performed in concert, he gave Mohn a very wobbly handshake.
Volle now sits beside Liz Mohn in a hotel. “I’ve learned that celebrities are just people too,” he admits. “A week ago, I stood on the stage for the first time with Plácido Domingo. For a moment, I was frozen with awe. But you have to put that aside, otherwise you can’t do your job.” That wasn’t the first lesson the baritone learned. “After ‘Neue Stimmen’, I met an agent, who promised me everything under the sun,” he remembers. “That’s dangerous, particularly for young singers. You’re living in a dream world, and a rude awakening awaits you. But it has to come sometime, since this wonderful business also has its share of problems and pitfalls” (Michael Volle). Fortunately, he managed to navigate around them. He made his debut in Bayreuth in 2007 and sang in Seville, Zurich and Berlin.

Experience is crucial

Volle advises up-and-coming opera singers to enter as many competitions as they can. “It gave me greater confidence onstage,” he says. “Also, it gives you a sense of proportion. You see that you’re not the only talented singer in the world. Competition can be very educational.” The singer also entered the famous Cardiff Singer of the World competition, and he still draws on that experience. On the other hand, he’s glad that he no longer feels obliged to take every opportunity and accept every offer. “This profession is hard on the family,” he admits. “My first daughter was born shortly after ‘Neue Stimmen.’ I could only ask myself: How am I going to manage all these responsibilities? Now everything is easier. Thanks to my success, sometimes I can say no. I spend a lot of time with my children and I enjoy every minute of it.” In 2012 the singer switched sides for the first time, serving on the jury of a singing competition. “Many similar events have declined in quality,” he observes, “but ‘Neue Stimmen’ is still regarded internationally as a pivotal competition. Of course, people like Liz Mohn are crucial to that success. Her involvement is of inestimable value. I sincerely hope she continues for a long time.”

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Casually turned out, baritone Michael Volle enjoys the summer weather in Salzburg.