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EXCLUSIVE | In Comes The Understudy: A star is born...

By Neil Crory on February 8, 2015

Issachah Savage copy
Issachah Savage replaces Canadian Opera Company star tenor, Clifton Forbis in the role of Siegmund in Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre

The Canadian Opera Company lost its star tenor, Clifton Forbis, yesterday due to illness. He was scheduled to sing the demanding role of Siegmund in the 4:30 performance of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre.

Fortunately the COC had engaged the young American tenor, Issachah Savage, as the ‘cover’ for the COC’s run of seven performances. Yesterday Savage sang the third performance and, in so doing, has secured his reputation as a major contender for star status among dramatic tenors worldwide.

Savage, a warm, effusive and personable individual, created quite a stir in opera circles last year when he won not only the main prize of the 2014 Seattle International Wagner Competition, but also the audience favourite prize, the orchestra favourite prize, and a special honour by Speight Jenkins.

When Savage sang the opening line of yesterday’s Die Walküre, we immediately knew that we were in store for something quite different. Instead of the usual tenor with baritone colouration and vocal heft, we had a lyric, unforced dramatic tenor, lighter in colour and yet powerful. Savage was careful to pace the first two acts in which he appears – building from strength-to-strength. The role is rather low in places for tenor, so some of these passages in Act II were intoned rather than sung (but this is hardly a flaw at this stage in his career).

Savage’s ability to step in so comfortably into a production demonstrates the necessity for companies to have ‘covers’ for all roles – in case of injury or illness. But is it frustrating to do all the work, and not reap the rewards of an actual performance?

No, I don’t think of it that way, I think of everything as a learning opportunity. There are several things that I’ve prepared but not sung, such as Polione in Norma and Canio in Pagliacci. I don’t think of it as a disappointment in any way. Because I know that it will be useful eventually. For me, the main thing is that I be as prepared as the singer who is actually engaged to sing the role. Actually when I am preparing the role, I don’t use the word ‘cover’ at all. I always tell myself that, “You’re singing”. You prepare the role as if you’re the one actually engaged to perform.

When asked about his COC debut performance yesterday, Savage said, “I had palpitations the whole time because you want to do a good job. So you’re enjoying it on one hand, but you’re not enjoying it as much as you want to because you have such a responsibility. But if I were to rate tonight’s performance, I think that I would give it 7 out of 10. For me I’m always striving to be better. I always want more.”

I think that Savage’s newly founded fan base in Toronto would take an exception to a 7,  and give him a solid 10 out of 10. The roaring ovation that greeted him when he walked out on stage for his curtain call was of a quality and pitch usually reserved for only the greatest of singers.

It is unclear at the moment whether or not Savage will be singing more performances or not. Much depends upon Forbis. Either way we have two excellent – and contrasting – tenors in Forbis and Savage. The next scheduled performance is set for February 10 at 7:00 pm. Die Walküre runs thru February 22nd.

On a personal note: Having attended opening night as well as yesterday’s performance of Die Walküre, I can report that the production has jelled significantly. The orchestra, in fact, has never sounded more glorious; and what a cast!

…other COC news…

Canadian Opera Company Orchestra’s Music Director, Johannes Debus, and his partner, violinist Elissa Lee, gave birth to a baby boy (Noah) on Wednesday, shortly before Debus conducted the second performance of Richard Wagner’s four-hour long opera Die Walküre.


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