We are in Madrid. Why not? It’s the first time the snazzy International Opera Awards – self-described as opera’s Oscars – have been held outside the UK. The setting is the fabulous Teatro Real. Surprise number one. The auditorium is packed with locals. Not just by self-congratulating Oscary celeb guests. 

Hundreds of Madrid opera lovers have paid to be there. After all, this is a ceremony of beautiful operatic orchestral music and singing, interspersed only occasionally by interludes of folk traipsing up to claim gongs. A concert worth attending in its own right. 

Surprise number two. Annoyingly for we schadenfreuders, the show is going without a hitch. Presenter, BBC 3’s legendary Petroc Trelawny is proving polished, black-tied, immaculately coifed, trim-bearded, syrup-voiced, delivery-inflection-perfected, moreso in plain sight than behind a BBC spade microphone. Is he an Avatar?

Petroch – first names for one of Auntie’s national treasures – not only has a commanding radio presence. He is passionate about his music, a true authority and, it turns out, as quip proficient onstage live as Terry Wogan. (For the benefit of 90% of readers, Terry Wogan was a legendary Radio 2 DJ and TV chat show host from BBC’s middle ages).

But Petroch goofs!

It was a moment of pure magic. We are approaching the end of the evening’s awards, having reached the Designer category. “And the winner is” … gold envelope handed over by invisible hand from behind curtain, perfectly timed moment of suspense …. “Michael Levine, designer of Madama Butterfly.” General applause. The Bregenz Festival production is one of the most beautiful presentations of opera you could hope to see. No surprise, then. Worthy winner. Some tastefully muted whooping.

Petroc: “Sadly, Michael can’t be with us this evening ….”

A slight figure in evening dress, suspiciously not spot lit, stands up in the stalls, crosses the bridge stage right and marches relentlessly towards the baffled host. Double take. “Ah! Michael IS here”. Steps forward to greet the advancing recipient with enthusiastic surprise – Petroc’s earpiece cue is clearly blistering his ears with bewildering messages. 

He embraces the oncoming winner with fashionable bromance shoulder grabbing: “You’re not meant to be here!” And as the dawn of realisation slowly breaks, Petroc, smile fading, obviously discombobulated, says: “You’re not Michael. Who are you?”

Dead pan reply: “I’m NOT Michael Levine, I’m Michael’s agent, Simon”. Seamlessly, Petroc whisks Simon to the podium impromptu and lets the agent deliver Michael’s “Thank you”. Simon says: “Firstly, I have to thank my agent.” No script writer could have bettered the hilarious sequence. It was a Del Boy “falling through the bar backwards” moment. 

I watched Petroc standing in semi darkness, pulling his beard and metaphorically applying his right foot to his own posterior. If that’s physically possible. His self-tortured reaction was more interesting than Simon’s dead pan acceptance speech. 

It’s worth narrating this only too human glitch – beautifully handled extempore by the host – as awards ceremonies are usually choc-full of confected, cheesy “off script” moments. Mostly related to gushing recipients thanking their mothers. This was different. The opera moment when the tenor loses his trousers but goes on singing regardless. Brilliant. 

International Opera Awards came of age in Madrid. A regular on the London scene since 2012 the awards are the brainchild of Harry Hyman, successful businessman and opera devotee. So devoté that he decided to put something back, spotted a gap in the market and crafted an awards ceremony aimed at raising funds for young artists.

I must declare an interest. Harry is a longstanding friend. I bumped into him at Grange Park Opera this summer, hence the invitation to Madrid. I also bumped into him at the British Youth Opera performance in Holland Park. Harry is everywhere. Maybe he thinks Reaction is everywhere.

Whatever, his is a path that whenever crossed leads to something new, of interest. He spoke once during the evening, resplendent in pink velvet jacket, then merged into the background. Teatro Real, Madrid won the category Opera House of the Year in 2021 and the slam dunk idea of having the winning house host the following year’s awards was conceived. 

So, an international awards ceremony previously beached on British shores, a bit like the BBC’s old “World” snooker championship, went truly “international”. It’s a step up in the credibility game. 

Credentials are underpinned by a high-quality team of judges headed by John Alison, the respected editor of Opera magazine. Patrons include the likes of Dame Janet Baker – who appeared onscreen to accept a lifetime achievement award, looking very chipper – Placido Domingo and Dame Felicity Lott.

Gratifyingly, the Awards’ aims are straightforward. Raising the profile of opera as an art form; recognising and rewarding success in opera; and generating funds to provide bursaries for aspiring talent in opera from around the world.

Principal sponsors are Mazars, a global consultancy group. I was surprised how many of the Mazars’ team attended the whole weekend and were involved in all the events. Often the attention span of sponsors is skin deep. This felt like commitment.

And to seek out nominees the organisers had done oodles of homework. None of finalists were “the bleeding obvious”. 

There are sixteen categories, encompassing the conventional “bests” for all sorts of music awards; Conductor; Designer; Female Singer; Male Singer; New Production; Festival; Recording; Rising Talent, etc. 

There were some other tooth-grinding “woo woo” categories. Sustainability saw Glyndebourne congratulated for its rather lonely, landscape defacing wind turbine. 

If they mean business I think the wokerati should extend their remit to new performance works next year. Maybe composer Mark Anthony Turnage will craft an ESG ear splitter. Turbine and Solar Panel Dichotomy – wind instruments only – would walk it!

As this column is not a racing results sheet, the full list of runners and riders in Madrid can be viewed here.  I shall dwell on some personal favourites.

Winner of the Digital class was Upload, from Dutch National Opera, reviewed in Reaction on 2nd February. An April performance at Park Avenue, New York’s Armory was also covered. Like David Cameron who agreed with Nick in 2010, I agree with the International Awards judges in 2022.

The significance of Upload is that it embraces new technologies, virtual effects, exciting avatars, opens the debate about artificial intelligence and pumps the life blood of everyday topicality into the veins of what many consider an art form wedded only to the past.

It also tells a very human story, about a man diagnosed with a terminal disease seeking a virtual life to be with his beloved daughter, and the ambivalence of the amoral science geeks who fleece him to let him do it. All that and excellent music from composer Michel van der Aa.  

The truth is that good opera has always been about pushing boundaries. Sir Roger Scruton makes the point vigorously in Understanding Music when he describes Rameau’s ground-breaking use of harmony and contrarian dissonance.   

The composer’s 18th century court musician productions for the novelty craving Louis XV would not have been complete without the latest thunder and lightning machines. 

The point is that International Opera Awards is giving the medium a huge boost by seeking out the best of innovation, and, in my view, reaching the right conclusions. 

The growing reputation of the event is attracting big names. I bumped into Annelise Miskimmon, Director of English National Opera (ENO). Bloodied but unbowed by her skirmishing with grant cutting Arts Council England, she, and a cohort from ENO were busy garnering support.

Miskimmon was there also because her production of The Handmaid’s Tale, by Danish composer Poul Ruders had been shortlisted for The New Production prize. Glyndebourne’s double bill, Poulenc’s La Voix humaine/Les Mamelles de Tirésias directed by Laurent Pelly won.

Tough choice. But having seen both I would have gone for Miskimmon’s production. Maybe that’s because the mounting of a beautifully crafted, difficult work that delivers its message with searing power is exactly why ENO is and should remain in business. Glyndebourne’s Poulenc was super slick, but at the end of the day a less consequential work.

Rosetta Cucci, Wexford Festival Opera’s Director, was doing the rounds. She was a nominee for the Director award. I came away from a conversation with her at the afterparty understanding how the miracle worker gets Wexford done. I’ve been suckered into helping to set up an American Friends of Wexford branch in the good old USA. “Well, you go there a lot. Send me an email”. Damn!

On the Friday before the awards, British soft power was wielded in the form of a formal dinner at the residency of the British Ambassador, Hugh Elliott. I am glad that our FCO is still prepared to lend a hospitable, helping hand to British inspired events like this, especially in a country where the habit previously was to singe the reigning monarch’s beard.

His Excellency attended the Monday evening awards ceremony, too. It was obvious the management of Teatro Real appreciated the gesture.

As the evening closed, we came to the category, Best Opera House. The auditorium turned blue and yellow. Guess what. Lviv and Odessa opera houses were joint winners. Bravely mounting operas throughout the war, the honour for Ukraine was well deserved. Amazingly a team of four was there to collect the awards in person. 

The Ukrainians were super savvy. “Of course, now you have established the tradition of the International Opera Awards being hosted in the theatre that wins the previous year, in 2023 you will be coming to Ukraine”.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But the fact that the question was worth posing shows how far this formerly very British awards ceremony has travelled. International Opera Awards can now claim that Oscar moniker with justification and pride.

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