The Joan Sutherland & Richard Bonynge Foundation has named the winners of two major singing competitions.

Australian tenor Alasdair Kent has won the 2016 Joan Sutherland & Richard Bonynge Bel Canto Award, while Russian soprano Kseniia Muslanova has been named the winner of the 2016 Elizabeth Connell Prize. Finals for both competitions were held at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on September 3. 

Kseniia Muslanova, Maestro Richard Bonynge and Alasdair Kent. Photo supplied

“Meeting and singing for Maestro Bonynge was really a huge privilege,” Kent told Limelight. “He is without question a world authority on how the bel canto repertoire can ideally be sung, and this is the music to which my voice is best suited, especially the florid Rossini tenor roles and the high-lyric French repertoire. To be presented with the Bel Canto Award by Maestro Bonynge, from the foundation honouring two great Australian icons of bel canto, it’s a real thrill and an honour. It hasn’t sunk in yet and I’m not sure it will for quite some time.”

In Dame Joan’s 90th birthday anniversary year, a record 74 entrants competed in the 6th annual Bel Canto Award with auditions held in Sydney, London, Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne, New York and Vienna. Kent took out the prestigious $50,000 first prize, donated this year by Walker Corpora on Pty Limited, from a field of six finalists. He also won a place in the Georg Solti Accademia di Bel Canto summer school in Tuscany for 2017, as well as a performance opportunity with Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.

“The Bel Canto Award affords me a much greater control in shaping these early years of my career, Kent said. “The Walker Corporation has very generously sponsored the increased prize this year, so, for example, what might have been a one week stay in Paris for the Paris Opera Competition in January can instead become two, three or four weeks. With that come the possibilities of improving my spoken French dramatically, studying some of my French roles more extensively, learning about the tastes of French audiences and companies by seeing performances and concerts, more fully exploring collaborations with conductors and administrators met through the Competition, even something as banal as making additional auditions in France and beyond. The Bel Canto Award allows me to more fully explore every possible musical avenue and experience that is open to me.”

Born in Perth, Western Australia, 29-year old Kent is in his final year as a Resident Artist at The Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, US, having completed a Bachelor of Music at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). He made his professional debut at the age of 25 as Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola for Opera Queensland. His operatic repertoire includes Count Almamviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Lindoro in L’italiana in Algeria, Ernesto in Don Pasquale, Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi, Ferrando in Così Fan Tutte and Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. In 2016/17 he makes his debut as Tamino in Die Zauberflöte and Rodrigo in Otello. He has previously been awarded prizes in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and the Guilio Gari Foundation International Vocal Competition among others, and is a finalist in the 2017 Paris Opera Competition.

“I was in Pesaro as a spectator during the Rossini Opera Festival earlier this year on my way back to Australia from the US, and let me tell you, I’ve definitely got a bit of a taste for cobblestone streets, an abundance of Italian opera and excellent espresso!” said Kent in anticipation of his trip to Italy. “But very seriously, the chance to spend three weeks at the Solti Accademia in Castiglione with some of the world’s foremost operatic artists, singers like Angela Gheorghiu and Leo Nucci, is just incredible. And without having to work towards a schedule of performances too, that’s a real boon. Even in the beginnings of a singer’s career, the calendar all too often demands studying music quickly, arriving the day before rehearsals begin, and then departing the day after the season closes four or five weeks later for the next show. For new roles especially, this is far from ideal. And not taking time for musical and vocal ‘maintenance’, well, that’s been the undoing of many a burgeoning career. All the greatest things in life take a little time, why would great singing be any different?”

With over $115,000 in prize money, other finalists included soprano Emma Moore who won the Richard Bonynge Award 2nd prize and Memorial Trust Prize; mezzo Bronwyn Douglass who was awarded the Decca Award 3rd prize, Universal Prize and Sydney Philharmonia Prize; soprano Alexandra Flood who won the Deborah Riedel Award 4th prize and Melbourne Opera Prize; bass baritone James Olds who took home the Sanderson Award 5th prize and Hawaii Performing Arts Festival Prize; and soprano Tabatha McFadyen who won the Kinnon Award 6th prize.

The 3rd annual Elizabeth Connell Prize for aspiring dramatic sopranos was awarded to Moscow-based Kseniia Muslanova from a field of five international finalists, chosen from 54 entries from 18 countries. The 34-year old took out the prestigious $20,000 first prize, which includes an audition at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London. Auditions for the competition were heard in four cities: Sydney, London, Vienna and New York. Muslanova auditioned in Vienna for renowned German singer Christa Ludwig and Artistic Director Fiona Janes.

“Victory in the Elizabeth Connell Prize competition is a gift of fate,” Muslanova told Limelight. “Preparing for the competition was very hard and now I realize that more hard work is still ahead. The professional competition level was so high that I had not even hoped to win and went on stage with thoughts of gratitude that I have the honour to be among the five finalists. Winning the contest is a great success. It is important not only to be a winner, but also to maintain this high level in the future. The opportunity to communicate with famous artists like Christa Ludwig and Richard Bonynge and to have their endorsement is very important to me. I hope that this competition will open a new stage in my career.”

Leah Gordon from Canada won 2nd prize, Yasmine Levi-Ellentuck from Israel won 3rd prize, while Anna-Louise Cole from Australia and Mari Wyn Williams from Wales both won finalist prizes.

The Joan Sutherland & Richard Bonynge Bel Canto Award was created in 2011 and is held in conjunction with the Elizabeth Connell Prize, which was created in 2014 from a legacy by the late South African dramatic soprano. Both competitions are run by the Joan Sutherland & Richard Bonynge Foundation. Judges for 2016 included Maestro Richard Bonynge AC CBE, Fiona Janes, Marilyn Richardson, Bernadette Cullen and Rosemary Gunn. 

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