Photos: Arne Weychardt

Final Round: Being Heard in Gütersloh

Time to wait: Baritone Sebastian Wartig before the final dress rehearsal for the 2013 semifinals.

At the final round in Gütersloh, contestants can’t lose, they can only win – if they know how to get noticed. change.story describes a young German baritone’s experience during “Neue Stimmen” 2013.

Is his tailcoat hanging properly? What time is that TV interview again? And why can’t someone design cufflinks that are easy to put on? Sebastian Wartig is in overdrive. A baritone from Dresden, he has just finished warming up. Now he strides through the corridors of the Gütersloh Community Center toward the stage – tense, focused, professional. Out of 1,428 singers from 69 countries, he was one of the 39 invited to participate in the competition’s final week. One other singer from Germany was selected: Raffaela Lintl of Freising. But while Lintl was eliminated after her second performance in Gütersloh, Wartig made it to the semifinals, thereby joining seven other men and 11 women, representing 17 nations in all.

Either way, a career boost

“The ones who reach the semifinal round are first-rate singers, with excellent chances for an international career,” says Liz Mohn, president of “Neue Stimmen”. Those are encouraging words, but they also underscore the importance of this occasion for the young contestants. Their audience includes representatives of major agencies, as well as many managers of Europe’s leading opera houses. Not to mention the distinguished jury.

Raffaela Lintl meeting with participants in the “Neue Stimmen” Lied Master Class in the Stadttheater Gütersloh

This roster of prominent figures was one reason why Wartig long focused his attention on the “Neue Stimmen” competition. He participated in the preliminary auditions two years ago but was not asked to come to Gütersloh. “I’ve made a lot of progress in the past two years, and this time around I had a completely different feeling about entering the competition. After the audition in Berlin, one of the jury members said, ‘We’ll be seeing you again.’ Three days later, I got the letter inviting me to the final round.”

On pins and needles

Which is why he is now here, calm and fully present. His voice fills the hall as he sings an aria from Lortzing’s Der Wildschütz, accompanied by the Duisburg Philharmonic.

Afterwards he waits backstage. After all 19 contestants have sung and the jury members have conferred, Liz Mohn and Dominique Meyer come to the stage to announce the finalists. Nine contestants have made it to the finals. Meyer reads each name slowly and asks the singers to join him onstage.

Wartig waits patiently until Meyer reaches the names beginning with the letter W. Then comes the bad news: His name is not on the list. “I was very disappointed. It’s hard to express in words,” he later says. “So many people had encouraged me and watched the live stream, rooting for me. My wife, my parents, my in-laws – and my professor. I’m still taking a master class with him. He was driving, listening on his mobile phone, and he pulled over for my performance.”

People call with their condolences. But many also wonder why so few Germans made it to the final round. In Wartig’s opinion, the issue is not the training singers receive in Germany. “Our training is among the best in the world,” he says. “I just think that in Russia and many Asian countries, they demand more of students. Many German voice students don’t finish in five years. They’re still in the program after seven years, with no end in sight.” Jury member Siegfried Jerusalem, until 2009 director of the College of Music in Nuremberg, can only agree, noting that the motivation often isn’t there. German students “don’t have the commitment that many Russians and Asians do,” he says.

Time well spent

Lintl and Wartig were two who did have the commitment, and their hard work resulted in an invitation to Gütersloh. Lintl was disappointed that the semifinals proved out of reach. But as Wartig was digesting the news of his elimination, the young soprano was already busy networking and participating in a workshop with movement coach John Norris.

Being eliminated after the first two arias was a disappointment, “but I could see that the others have more experience than I do, and many of them already have full-time jobs as singers,” she says. Nevertheless, she’s learned a lot – from conversations with other participants from around the world, people she plans to stay in touch with, and from the jury’s feedback. “They’ve given me some good advice. This week was a great experience for me, and it’s given me the encouragement I need to go on,” she says.

Her dream is to join the ensemble at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. After thinking for a moment, she adds, “But what I’d really like is to be a soloist who travels, performing in various venues.”

Also in attendance is someone who has achieved the kind of career Lintl is hoping for: soprano Christiane Karg. Dressed in an elegant evening gown, Karg joined Holger Noltze as a host for the semifinals. She seemed calm and relaxed – undoubtedly in contrast to six years ago when she was singing on this very stage. It was the finals, and she took sixth place. Clearly, “Neue Stimmen” can boost a singer’s career even if she doesn’t win first prize.

Voice of experience

According to Karg, all of this is possible for Lintl and Wartig, too. “German singers are like German cars,” she says. “When you buy one, you know it’s safe, and you know it’s reliable. It just might take longer to build, that’s all. It took me longer to develop as a singer. I would still find some of the arias challenging that were performed in the semifinals.” And that’s a good thing, Karg adds, since overreaching at the start of a career can take its toll. “Through the years I’ve seen singers lose their voices by the time they were 40. In your early twenties, your voice has to be fresh. I heard Sebastian in the semifinals – his voice was clear and vibrant,” she says. “Ultimately, reaching the finals is secondary. What’s important is being heard.”

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CONTINUE with “Among the Best” – Five Nations, One Passion: Music

Festive mood: Many of the singers who did not make it to the finals stayed on in Gütersloh to help celebrate.