During the last decade of her distinguished international career as a noted bel canto soprano and treasured teacher, Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer (1928-2008) made a very savvy career move: she established a singing competition in her name. But far beyond the implied publicity continuum, the Leyla Gencer Voice Competition, which concluded its eighth edition in Istanbul yesterday, is proving to be an unusually nurturing and valuable platform for young singers. This year’s seven-member jury, led by Italian soprano Luciana Serra, included several members (including Serra herself) who had personally worked with Gencer, and they espouse her loftiest proprietary ideals for helping young singers succeed.

Marigona Qerkezi © Benek Ozmez
Marigona Qerkezi
© Benek Ozmez

Gencer (pronounced ‘gen-djair’), who was known as “La diva turca” to denote her lengthy operatic presence at La Scala and subsequently at the Accademia Teatro alla Scala for over 30 years, founded the competition in 1995 in Istanbul. Before her death in 2008, she personally supervised the first four competitions, and served as President of the Board of Trustees for the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Art (IKSV) which now organizes the competition along with the Accademia. All the editions to date have sported a list of singers that have gone on to achieve credible careers.

Preliminary auditions were held in Warsaw, London, Milan, Berlin, Paris and Istanbul and yielded 100 applicants from around the world. Seven were selected for the finals and were accompanied by the Istanbul Borusan Philharmonic conducted by Antonio Pirolli as they competed for prizes in the Süreyya Opera House in the Kadiköy area of Istanbul.

During that week, Jury President Serra presided with David Gowland (Artistic Director of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden), Yekta Kara (Chief Director of the Turkish State Opera and Ballet), Izabela Klosinska (Casting Director of Polish State Opera, Warsaw), Alain Surrans (Director of Opéra de Rennes), Gianni Tangucci (Artistic Director of Opera di Firenze Accademia del Maggio) and conductor Pirolli.

Jonathan Winell © Benek Ozmez
Jonathan Winell
© Benek Ozmez

The finalists vied for three cash prizes totalling 23,500 € and three scholarship prizes (from the Accademia Teatro alla Scala, the Polish National Opera, and Covent Garden’s Young Artist Programme) and an audience prize.

Capturing the First Prize was 22-year-old Albanian soprano Marigona Qerkezi, who displayed a kaleidoscopic voice of voluptuous richness and a seamless wide range. Her rendition of “E strano...Ah! Fors’é lui...Sempre libera” from Verdi’s La traviata proved her to be the judges’ ideal: a young singer with vast potential and a resumé that needed a welcome boost from the opera Establishment. To that end, she was also granted a Special Award for three months of study at the Accademia Teatro alla Scala.

American tenor Jonathan Winell won the Second Prize for his affecting version of “Che gelida manina” from Puccini’s La bohème. What made his rendition notable was his genteel avoidance of the commonly tolerated tenorissimo histrionics. The end result was a convergence of dramatic sincerity and vocal brilliance. Winell has already participated in Berlin’s Staatsoper studio and has recently secured a fest contract at Ravensburg Opera House (Germany) for the upcoming season.

Ayse Senogul © Benek Ozmez
Ayse Senogul
© Benek Ozmez
The Third Prize was shared by Dutch soprano Deirdre Judith Angenent and Polish baritone Hubert Zapiór. Angenent, who won the 2014 ‘s Hertogenbosch prize, and Zapiór, who is still a student in Warsaw, both exhibited exceptionally mature-sounding voices and the ability to interpret complex characters with deft control, tonal lustre and musical sophistication. Zapiyór also received the Young Artist Special Award from the Royal Opera House to study for one month in London to prepare for an audition with ROH’s Music Director, Antonio Pappano.

The other competitors were Italian baritone Giovanni Romeo, Korean bass-baritone Dongho Kim, and Turkish soprano Ayse Senogul who was awarded the Audience Prize and the Polish National Opera Award to perform a role with that organization.

Covent Garden’s Gowland explained the modus operandi of the Gencer jury, as reflected in his own program at ROH: “We speak to all the singers and gave them feedback. It’s imperative that they know the impression they give. It’s all constructive, and not to criticise. We care, and we want them to do well.” That was admirably achieved at the finals, when the singing was at a consistently high level throughout.

Referring to some other competitions, Gowland says “There, you’re just a number. It’s so impersonal. I get bored with people not caring. I want to have a conversation with the singer about ‘Who are You?’ and ‘Where are you going’?”

Young singers would do well to apply to the next Gencer Competition in 2018.