1979pressOut of a near record number of 103 registered participants, 93 participants actually arrived to the preliminary rounds that were not open to the public. The reason being that the first round still included candidates who had arrived to Den Bosch without proper self-knowledge and/or training. Unlike it common practice on television today, where the failed candidates are the money making focus of laughter and ridicule, the IVC wanted (and still wants) to protect unripe candidates from negative exposure. Thus, the public part of the competition started with the semi finals. Both he and Chris de Jong-Stolle, writing for various newspapers, agreed that the average level was exceptionally high.

Nerve wrecking

Especially for the hosting families, who flocked the contest from day 1 to support their singing guests by all possible means, this was a guarantee for a few nerve wrecking days, where hope, fear and despair went hand in hand. According to Hein Zomerdijk for Brabants Dagblad, these semi finals were also very insightful for those who wanted to gain more knowledge on the things that singing professionally involved. One of the things he advised candidates, was to think twice before to compete with over familiar numbers, which often resulted in mediocre imitations of well-known interpretations o f this or that aria. Apart from that, Zomerdijk concluded that the Jury was right in its conclusion that, for the third year in a row, the average level was very high, with of course the usual few exceptional voices among them.

Semi finals | Tenors, countertenors and sopranos

Among tenors, both Zomerdijk and De Jong-Stolle thought Dutch tenors Martin Smeding and William Hendriks not yet ready for the finals. They needed more technical training to let their throats produce what they were aiming for, and they needed a more ripe sense of interpretation. Having said that, De Jong-Stolle could clearly hear a future opera singer in the Limburg tenor Hendriks, even though he could not yet accomplish his aims. As for Smeding, De Jong-Stolle though this inhabitant of the province Drenthe either not ripe, or not having his best day at the semi finals. This is an intriguing remark, since it finally sheds light on the complaints previously made by jurors who failed to understand what some participants were doing at the competition at all? Where most of those would usually start and finish in the preliminary rounds, Smeding revealed that his passing on the semi finals came as a complete surprise:

‘It was nothing short of a miracle, since my participation was just part of a bet. When I made a surprise passage into the semi finals I became the hero of my fellow choir members, and I started to believe in my voice.’ (Martin Smeding, 2014)

Otherwise, both critics thought there was much to be enjoyed among tenors, beginning with English tenor Peter Jeffes, whom both tipped as their favorite for a place in the finals. In addition, he though William Kendall to have the technical requirements, the Japanese Takuo Tsukioka to have flair, and the American Howard Crook to have proper distinction.

Among countertenors, Christopher Royal from England had the best breath control, and a superior vocal culture and distinction, when compared to the West-German Klaus Heffner, who had some trouble with sustaining high spun notes on tone and breath.

Among sopranos, Zomerdijk was pleased with the Dutch Coby Dijk, whose Mozart aria he though superior to her Austrian competitor Anna Maria Kögler. Dijk also made the most of her Debussy song. The highlight of the day, however, arrived in the evening, when myriad of fine operatic sopranos came out who mesmerized the audience with coloratura fireworks and trumpeting high notes, things which simply impressed the audience more directly than the more refined song interpretations do. Zomerdijk:

‘The Israeli Robin Weisel-Capsouta, for example, sang exceptionally beautiful and with gorgeous vocal means in the medieval a capella ‘Bella Doëtta.’ Her achievements in Donizetti and Barber were also fine. Her competitor was a radiant Romanian soprano [Nelly Miricioiù – RS], who, for the moment, was still caught up in producing ravishing tones, that were still waiting for similar depth in interpretation.’ (Hein Zomerdijk, Eigentijdse muziek wint terrein in Den Bosch,’ Brabants Dagblad, September 7, 1979)

Praise also for Anna Louise Deal–Plutmen from the USA, an operatic soprano with clear experience in the trade. The English soprano Fiona Dobie impressed mostly with her fine song renditions, also her Concert aria of Mozart still lacked some refinement. Both Polish sopranos proved very cultured, yet Zomerdijk did not understand why Gabriela Czerner finished with her weakest number, a Stravinsky song, while her Chausson was much more convincing. Krystyna Zareba also made a fine impression, while the Japanese Kumiko Takami made some impression with her Fidelio aria, although her Schubert Lied ‘Suleika’s Zweiter Gesang’ was her trump card. Takako Hara was more convincing than they very young Shihomi Tnoue, while the UK soprano Alison Pearce did some fine things in the familiar, slow aria from Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem, and De Jong-Stolle specified also the Korean soprano Young-hee Nam, who had a voluminous operatic voice, while the Swiss Theresia Klenzi specialized in contemporary repertoire, excelling in a Penderecki aria.

At the end of the first day of the semi finals, tenors Peter Jeffes, Takuo Tsukioka, Howard Crook, countertenor Christopher Royall, and sopranos Coby Dijk, Takako Hara, Fiona Dobie, Anna Louise Deal-Pluymen, Robin Weisel-Capsouto and Nelly Miricioiù emerged as finalists.

Semi finals | The lower ranges

In order to demonstrate the level of competition in Den Bosch, Zomerdijk pointed to the example of Dutch baritone Piet Nievelstein, who had just graduated as a soloist from he Maastricht Conservatory, an institute of repute. Yet was clear from the start that a place in the finals was out of reach for him. Regardless, Zomerdijk praised his courage:

‘It was brave and necessary of him to give it a try, since it is becoming increasingly important to achieve a good result in den Bosch if you want to make a career as a debutant To which I add that Nievelstein can be consoled by the fact that Michael Rabsilber and Theodor Römer weren’t better, even though their names had flying recommendation printed to them in the program booklet.’ (Hein Zomerdijk, ‘Niveau in Den Bosch tikkeltje hoger,’ Brabants Dagblad, September 8, 1979)

Thus, Zomerdijk could well follow the Jury in choosing as finalist among basses and baritones the Finnish Kalevi Olli, Peter Savidge (thanks to his captivating rendition of Schönberg’s ‘Dank’), the Polish Dariusz Niemirowicz (with his elegant, noble sound), and Henry Herford from the UK.

As for altos, none had made it to the semi finals, and therefore the choice in the altos/mezzo sopranos category was among 9 mezzo-sopranos, all of whom showed great promise, notwithstanding their exceptionally young average ages, including some who might be described as ‘juvenile.’ Although her dress did not betray it, Zomerdijk thought the 22 years young Scottish mezzo Catriona Bell the surpise of the day with a superb technique in Mozart’s ‘Laudeamus te’ from Grosse Messe in C, where he could find no fault except for her ‘a.’ Next, he thought that the likewise 22 years young Irish mezzo Colette MacGahon had deserved her place in the finals, while he though the respectable American mezzo Mary Burgett a candidate for the Second Prize. The 23 years young Romanian mezzo Liliane Biziniche earned her election of fourth mezzo soprano finalist with her beautiful sound, her volume and warmth, all signs of an important vocal culture. Zomerdijk mainly regretted that not also the Irish mezzo Anna Caleb was given passage to the finals. Although she had blown her chances by improvising at random in the coloratura part of Mozart’s ‘Parto, parto,’ she had first excelled in a Schönberg song, and an enchanting, risqué performance of Fauré’s naughty ‘Fêtes galantes.’ Where ‘Parto, parto’ proved the Waterloo for Caleb, it was the trump card of Namiko Tanaka, who also made the most of Mahler’s ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen,’ only to fail in her Henze number, wrote Zomerdijk. De Jong-Stolle, however, had also expected the Japanese in the finals on the grounds of her impressive Mahler interpretation. Then the German mezzo Cornelia Dietrich; she was technically apt, but she exaggerated the emotional part to the point where her interpretations collapsed under mannerism, in spite of her impressive track record. To Zomerdijk, the latter illustrated that preparing for a competition was not a task to be taken lightly, especially here, where the competition was fierce, which further stressed the value of winning at the IVC.’

The finals

Saturday’s finals included six sopranos, 4 mezzo-sopranos, one countertenor, three tenors and four basses/baritones. Although Zomerdijk did not miss the shortcomings of this or that candidate, he found it rather difficult to measure them so precisely that you could make a clear decision. What to think of the Finnish singer Kalevi Olli, who garnered bravos for his rendition of Schubert’s ‘Der Zwerg,’ although he did not win more than ‘ a mere’ Honorary Diploma. Admittedly, following the Schubert song Olli still faced two tough arias and De Jong-Stolle also added that Olli could not match his semi finals performance during the finals. Still, Zomerdijk would have wished also him Second Prize for his shrewd and economic singing, given that his not significantly better rivals Henry Herford and Peter Savidge shared 2nd Prize in the Jos Orelio category for basses/baritones.

The only First Prize fell among the sopranos, and as expected it went to the Romanian Nelly Miricioiù, already a staple of the Brasov Opera, who had thrown all of her experience and her vocal instinct at Jury and audience alike, with little to none inhibitions. Almost grudgingly, Zomerdijk admitted that she was a fine singer with a great voice who stepped up the challenge by using he stage experience to full effect. The slight reservations of the critic concerned her apparent concentration on the war zones of the soprano, the spectacular high notes, where Zomerdijk would have wished for equal care in the passage to her low and to her high notes. According to him, that was all that stood between her First prize and the Great prize of the City of Den Bosch, which was not awarded this year. The slightly disappointed tone in Zomerdijk’s review did not concern Miricioiù’s achievements, but rather the fact that she took the first flight back to Brasov where she was expected to perform, which meant that the concluding IVC Gala Concert on Wednesday was given without the only First Prize Winner, a first:

‘I do believe that it is time to reconsider the terms of entering the competition at this point. While the IVC guarantees the Winner a concert performance with full orchestra, the rule should be included in the terms of participation that Prize Winners have to appear at the Gala Concert.’ (Hein Zomerdijk, ‘Vocalistenconcours is uniek,’ Brabants Dagblad, September 10, 1979.)

Apparently, the organization must not only have felt at a loss to the point where they worked out a solution.

As for Coby Dijk’s 2nd Prize, Zomerdijk was happy for her, especially since it was a close call given the respectable qualities of the Israeli soprano Robin Weisel-Capsouto, the English soprano Fiona Dobie. The grudging look on the face of one Jury member when Dijk’s Prize was announced further stressed how close they were to each other. While Zomerdijk could accept the Jury’s verdict regarding the Second Prize, he thought it almost unfair to let the Israeli return home empty handed, without even an Honorary Diploma, whereas she had sung a ravishing ‘Allerseelen’ by Richard Strauss. De Jong-Stolle agreed with Zomerdijk: he had expected more for the Israeli soprano on the grounds of her refined renditions of songs by Debussy and Menotti. Time proved him right, since Capsouto had a respectable Israeli career, during which she sang both operatic roles and concert repertoire, among others with such conductors as Leonard Bernstein, Neville Marriner, Claudio Abbado, George Singer, Lorin Maazel, and Charles Dutoit. Fiona Dobie eventually reaped the first ever IVC Prize ‘Janine Micheau,’ for her special interpretation of the French repertoire, wrote De Jong-Stolle.

Among tenors, Howard Crook came out on top his league, although no 1st Prize was awarded. He therefore won a fine 2nd prize, leaving the competition clearly behind him. The Japanese Tsukoika had a promising voice but sounded as an imitator of sorts rather than as an interpreter, and even Jeffes had to bow for Crook’s artistry, musicality and impeccable technique.

Among mezzo sopranos, the Irish Colette MacGahon was left empty handed, due to the fact that she was only achieved her top form in her final piece, Bach’s ‘Qui sedes?’ Her even younger rival, the British Catriona Bell won a remarkable ƒ 1000 BUMA Prize at age 22, and could be proud of herself. Since the 1 st prize was not awarded among mezzos, the Romanian Liliane Bizineche shared the 2nd prize with the black American mezzo soprano, Mary Burgett, who drew unusual praise from Zomerdijk for her physical appeal and luscious interpretation of Ravel’s ‘Asie.’

The last 2nd prize went deservedly to countertenor Christopher Royall, who made contemporary Tippet songs sound as fashionable as the usual baroque repertoire that countertenors are usually associated with. If Judith Mok’s Encouragement Prize ‘Toonkunst’ was justifiable could not be measured, since she had not made it to the semi finals and therefore neither critic not audience had heard her achievements at the IVC during the preliminary rounds. Piet Nievelstein, finally, reaped the Prize ‘Friends of Song’ and could prepare for three concerts within the body of that Foundation (which still exists today!).

A note on repertoire

De Jong-Stolle concluded his essay on the finals with a reference to Manus Willemsen’s opening speech earlier that week, where he called on participants to include more contemporary works in their repertoire. Willemsen could not complain about this, wrote De Jong-Stolle:

‘A significant number of competitors had included 20th Century repertoire to the point where it altered the signature of the IVC. The beloved and famous opera arias are increasingly replaced with modern repertoire. It is possible that some lament this change, although it is effectively something that should be welcomed. Having said that, there was difference noticeable in public interest, since attendance remained exceptionally high, as ever in Den Bosch.’ ( Chris de Jong-Stolle, ‘Eervolle Tweede prijs voor de sopraan Coby Dijk,’ NRC?, September 10, 1979)