The Washington Post

Tucker, Nilsson awards crown winners and raise questions

Michael Fabiano, the tenor who just won a $50,000 Tucker Foundation award, sings between the sopranos Tamara Wilson and  Nicole Cabell in Washington Concert Opera’s “Il Corsaro.” (credit: Don Lassell)

The Richard Tucker Foundation has a pretty good track record, with its annual awards, of picking people who go on to solid careers — in part because it tends to anoint singers who are already on a good career track. This is certainly true of the 2014 Tucker Award winner, who was announced today: the tenor Michael Fabiano.

DC has seen plenty of Fabiano this season, with a fine recital in the fall and a turn as Verdi’s “Il Corsaro” a few weeks ago. In New York, it was another early Verdi work — “I Lombardi,” with the Opera Orchestra of New York — that catapulted him to a new level of attention with audiences and within the business. “I was bowled over,” said Barry Tucker, the tenor’s son and foundation’s president, by the performance — one reason Fabiano took the prize, which now involves a cash award of $50,000.

Another singer’s legacy foundation announced an award this week that caused considerably less excitement. The Birgit Nilsson Prize involves a cool million dollars for some suitably outstanding figure in the opera world. Established in 2009 and given out every two or three years, it’s already gone to Placido Domingo and Riccardo Muti; this year, it was awarded to the Vienna Philharmonic. (The orchestra’s president was on the judging committee, but recused himself as soon as talk of his orchestra came up, according to a somewhat defensive article about the selection by another of the judges, Rupert Christiansen of The Telegraph.)

You could argue that awards should be need-blind: the question of material prosperity has no bearing on artistic excellence, any more than the question of what kind of message giving an award to a particular institution will send to the world. But it’s hard, at a time when classical music institutions are increasingly struggling for funds, to see a million dollars to go an organization that really has no need of outside help or further accolades — and I say this completely without reference to what I might term the Vienna Philharmonic’s ongoing human-rights issues about the underrepresentation of women in the orchestra.

The real problem with Madame Nilsson’s prize is that it was conceived by a person who lived in an age of operatic superstars. Today, it’s a more democratic opera world, and there are arguably fewer stage gods and goddesses. In any case: what, exactly, is gained by giving a wealthy conductor or well-funded orchestra $1 million?

The Richard Tucker Foundation has it easier, betting on the future rather than trying to dole out accolades among the establishment. In addition to Fabiano’s award, the foundation gave out three Richard Tucker Career Grants of $10,000 each, and five Sara Tucker Study Grants of $5,000 each. One of the $10,000 grants went to Ryan Speedo Green, who is making out like a bandit in the awards department at the moment. He may make it to $1 million yet.

Party game: name five singers, conductors, and/or directors whom you think could or should win the Birgit Nilsson prize.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.



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Michael Cavna · April 10, 2014