Five Nations, One Passion: Music

Photos: Michael Bergmann, Jan Voth

In 2011, 41 contestants from 18 countries were invited to Gütersloh for the final round of “Neue Stimmen.” How do the lives of young singers differ around the world? What role does singing play in their native countries? And what does the competition mean to them? Conversations with five participants revealed what they all have in common: a love of music and opera.

A bass from South Korea sings “La calunnia” from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. A mezzo-soprano from Russia sings “Seguidilla” from Bizet’s Carmen. And a tenor from China performs “Konstanze! dich wiederzusehen!” from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. It doesn’t matter what their native tongue is or which country they hail from – when 41 young talents from 18 nations gather onstage, they all speak the same language: music!

During the week of the competition’s final round, they all reside together in the same small, homey hotel in Gütersloh, two singers to a room. “That means you have to be willing to engage with other people,” says Liz Mohn, president of “Neue Stimmen.” The young people have just unpacked, and already the atmosphere is congenial and full of anticipation. They use their time in the hotel to get to know each other and talk about their experiences. This is where we spoke with lyric baritone Josué Cerón, member of the ensemble at Compania Nacional de Ópera de Bellas Artes in Mexico, Anna Gütter from Germany, who studies at the University of the Arts in Berlin, Melinda Heiter from Hungary, Sofie Elkjær Jensen from Denmark and Don Lee from South Korea – five young performers from five different countries with five different backgrounds.

“It was actually a huge accident! When I was a child the director of the children’s choir at the Saarland State Theater came to our elementary school looking for singers. In the beginning I didn’t want to go to the rehearsals. But then we had our first performance, and from then on music was the most important thing in my life. Participating in ‘Neue Stimmen’ is an incredibly important experience for me. You can tell yourself a hundred times that there’s an amazing number of talented singers in the world, but when you come here and see that it’s true, then it takes on a whole new meaning.”
Anna Gütter, soprano, Germany

“I have to go abroad. We have a long tradition of singing in Mexico, but only one major opera house – the one in Mexico City. We Latin Americans love to sing and we love German opera. It took me 16 hours to get here for ‘Neue Stimmen,’ from Mexico City to Frankfurt and then on to Gütersloh. My big dream is to work exclusively in Germany.”
Josué Cerón, lyric baritone, Mexico

“It’s a shame that very few schools in Denmark offer a music class. In our country you have to be pretty lucky to meet someone who recognizes your talent. That happened to me in our church choir. I’ve been living in Copenhagen for six years now and am studying at the Music Academy. People from all over Scandinavia come to the academy since it has a good reputation. There are even students from Germany. It feels good to be here at ‘Neue Stimmen’ making new contacts.”
Sofie E. Jensen, lyric soprano, Denmark
“It usually starts at church. In South Korea choirs perform at every church service. We also sing in school. And there’s a lot of karaoke. I actually wanted to play the flute, but started singing in a choir at the same time. I began studying voice when I was at college in Seoul in 1999. I came to Germany in 2007 – you have to, since there are so few possibilities in Asia. And you’re not taken seriously if you haven’t been to Europe and had a career there. By the way, many people believe that Asians are very ambitious, which may be true of the Chinese. But we Koreans are the total opposite. We want to enjoy life and love to sing.”
Don Lee, bass, South Korea

“My family is very musical, like most in Hungary. I started learning to play the piano when I was six and continued for 12 years. While I was studying languages in Budapest I also took voice lessons – I couldn’t live without music. Then I passed the entrance exam for the Franz Liszt Music Academy. Fortunately Hungary has a long tradition of music. Singing and making music is an important part of family life. I always had good teachers in Budapest which is why I stayed there. The opera house I dream of performing at is the Vienna State Opera.”
Melinda Heiter, mezzo-soprano, Hungary

The Gütersloh experience

The atmosphere at “Neue Stimmen” in Gütersloh is special, something that is much appreciated by the participants, the music-world professionals and the public. It’s true of the competitions, and also of the master classes, which have been held every other year since 1997, alternating with the competitions.

Many have been proud to play a role. Sir Peter Ustinov, for example, served as honorary chairman in 2001. “I would just like to say how privileged I am to be here and how much I’ve enjoyed it,” he noted back then. “When I’m here, I don’t feel 80 years old. Only 79.”

The event’s finely tuned planning may have something to do with that. “We take care of everything that needs to be done, from the singers’ travel arrangements to doctor’s appointments,” explains Mieke Eyckerman-Kölln, one of the event’s managers. “We handle the catering, morning wake-up calls, emergencies and much more. We even provide bicycles.” In the final weeks alone, the staff feeds more than 250 people – at different times, in different rooms and allowing for different preferences. They prepare the security plan, delegate assignments, arrange briefings. In short, they create lengthy to-do lists then execute the resulting tasks smoothly and efficiently.

After all, having a good time is also one of the competition’s goals. “The finalists have many positive experiences – some of which can advance their careers, help them make contacts and find engagements,” says Ines Koring, “Neue Stimmen” project manager at the Bertelsmann Stiftung. That in turn enhances the program’s reputation, because the singers naturally talk about how much they enjoyed participating. “And how worthwhile it was to take part,” Koring adds.

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CONTINUE with “Among the Best” – The “Neue Stimmen” 2015 Finalists