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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

INTERVIEW | Issachah Savage: Touched By Grace

By Joseph So on September 27, 2016

The young American dramatic tenor shares his thoughts on music, faith, and life.

Issachah Savage (Photo: Kristen Hoeberman)
Issachah Savage (Photo: Kristen Hoeberman)

In the world of opera, good tenors are always in short supply. Unlike the baritone voice which is in the range of the typical male speaking voice, the tenor voice is like a high-wire act, singing up to a high C and beyond. Anytime a promising tenor emerges on the operatic firmament it is cause for celebration. In February 2015, American Issachah Savage stepped in to sing Siegmund in the Canadian Opera Company’s Die Walkure when the scheduled tenor fell ill. I had the great good fortune to be in the audience that evening. The moment Savage started to sing, our collective jaw dropped. It was clear that this was a major voice. At the final curtain, the ovation for him from the capacity audience was among the most impressive I’ve experienced in my 45 years of attending COC performances.

According to the biography on his website, Issachah Savage was born into a musical and religious family in the Philadelphia area. He made his first public performance in church when he was five. It was the CAPA choral director, David King, who first introduced the young Issachah to opera through a recording of Jussi Björling singing “Ingemisco” from Verdi’s Requiem. King went on to serve as an important mentor, encouraging the young Issachah to study voice and seriously consider a career as a professional singer. Along the way, he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Vocal Performance from Morgan State University and a Master’s Degree in Opera Voice Performance from The Catholic University of America.

Opera is a highly competitive field, to be sure. A good way for young singers to get noticed is through competitions, and Issachah Savage has been singularly successful. He won the 2012 Marcello Giordani International Competition and the 2014 Seattle International Wagner Competition.  Still, in a relatively early stage of a career, he has already made debuts at the Met, and opera houses in Seattle, Houston, and of course Toronto. Among the roles he has sung are Radames, Bacchus and Siegmund. This season, he will have two role debuts, as Narraboth in Richard Strauss’s Salome, and his first-ever Otello.

We are fortunate to have Savage back on Oct. 6 in a song recital, under the auspices of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto. He’ll be accompanied by COC pianist/coach Michael Shannon. The two of them met as members of the San Francisco Opera Merola program in 2013. I asked Michael for his impressions of the tenor: “His friendliness! He radiates joy, and that draws people in, as colleagues and as audience members,” replies Shannon. “Our first meeting together in San Francisco was a coaching on Act 4 Otello. When he started to sing, I knew I was in the presence of someone very special. He has that kind of dramatic quality which is first and foremost, beautiful. I can’t wait to make music with him again!”

In addition to the WMCT recital, Savage is also appearing as a guest to be interviewed at a special meeting of the Toronto Wagner Society, on October 4, 8 pm, at the Arts and Letters Club, 14 Elm Street in downtown Toronto. The event is free to members, and there’s a charge of $20 for non-members.  I contacted Issachah Savage recently through several phone calls and a flurry of email exchanges. I wanted to get his thoughts on his career, and in particular his upcoming recital.

JS: First of all, let me say that Toronto opera lovers are looking forward to your return.  Was your COC engagement the first time you sang in Canada? Tell us a little about the experience of singing Siegmund. What do you think of the Toronto audience?

IS: Yes, it was my first time singing in Canada, and I truly love singing Siegmund. It is very near and dear to my heart, not only because of the splendid music and wonderful story but because it was the last role I worked with Patricia Sage. We spent countless hours exploring this great score.  Patsy was unable to travel at that point, but she was certainly there with me.  It was a role and company debut I will never forget.  I could not have asked for a better situation!  Everyone was so supportive.  And the Toronto audience was warm and very welcoming.  They filled the house with warm vibes that I could easily feel on stage.

JS: Your bio says you come from a musical and religious family. Tell us a bit about your upbringing.

IS: Very true, I was about five years old when I sang my first solo, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”  Although I’m sure it was probably a sound only a mother could love.  As the congregation burst into an emotional frizzy, I learned at an early age that if I mean what I am singing, I can give people an emotional experience to courage and uplift them.  Needless to say, that’s when I fell in love with the power of music.  Growing up I had a ton of vocal models around me.  It seemed like everyone could sing in my church.  And I really did come from a very musical family full of guitarists, bass players, keyboardists, horn players, drummers and certainly singers.  None of them in opera, although I believe my late Aunt Rebecca could have been.

JS: What brought you to classical music and opera? When did you start studying voice?  Have you always been a tenor as an adult student?

IS: Well I started my formal training at 17 and have always studied as a tenor.  It was my high school choir teacher, the late David King who inspired me most to pursue classical singing as a career.  Somehow, Mr. King figured out I was very intimidated by classical singing.  It was never played in my home so my only exposure prior to high school was excerpts featured in “Bugs Bunny” or advertising commercials.  But whenever I heard it, it was always intriguing.  One day Mr. King made me stay after school and told me to mock the sound of Jussi Björling singing the last phrase of “Ingemisco.”  After I had given it by best effort, noticeably moved, he said to me, “You see? You have the kind of voice you can sing anything you want — (he leans in closer) EVEN OPERA”!  Those words were like a perpetual gong in my head that said to me, I don’t have to be afraid of my classical and operatic sound.

JS: You have been very successful in singing competitions. You have a terrific voice for sure, but not everyone with a great voice is successful in competitions. What is your secret?

IS: I don’t think I really ever had an actual formula or strategy so-to-speak.  Of course technique, the right rep, the right attire, clean sheet-music, announcing your Aria clearly, singing with a beautiful legato and diction… are all very important and now, kind-of goes without saying.  But when I first started doing competitions I was 16.  At that time in my development, I knew very little about all of that.  So the only “strategy” I had was the one I learned as a kid singing in church — mean what you are singing from the heart and move the people.  Even after gaining the skills and becoming a bit more comfortable with auditioning/competing, this has remained a trusted performance practice.  Looking back on my journey I will say, I strongly believe that being vocally honest is key.  It wasn’t until I stopped manufacturing my sound to go with the many labels I had been given over the years and started cultivating the voice I actually had, that I began to see more success and vocal ability.

JS: You have a long repertoire list on your website, mostly Italian and German heroic tenor rep. Do you have a preference, German or Italian?  Do you have a dream role?

IS: I love singing both German and Italian rep.  And I have so many roles I’d like to do. It would be very hard to crown one as the dream.  There’s Parsifal, Otello, Florestan, Lohengrin, Pollione, Cavaradossi, etc.  It’s a really long list of dreams.

JS: You’ve sung a lot of concerts/recitals as well as opera. If I were to ask you to choose, do you prefer opera or the recital/concert stage?

IS: I honestly can’t say I prefer one over the other.  I enjoy singing beautiful music regardless of the platform.  Although, there are some pretty vivid contrasts comparatively.  I personally find opera easier to prepare than a recital.  The responsibilities for a recital performance are more demanding in the absence of all the other theatrical elements to aid in the story telling.  You could be several characters in one song cycle. In opera, you are usually the same person all night.  But I love having both performance settings in a season because consequently, I believe they sharpen each other.  And the all-encompassing grandeur of opera, comprised of so many art forms creates an experience unparalleled.  Not better, just different!

JS: When you are preparing a new role, do you listen to recordings? Or do you work on your own?  Do you have singers whose voices you admire?

IS: The list of the voices that I admire past and present is endless. James King, Salvatore Fisichella, Ben Heppner, George Shirley, Jussi Björling, Placido Domingo, Fritz Wunderlich, Richard Tucker, Ramon Vinay, Jon Vickers, Lawrence Brownlee, Johan Botha, Franco Corelli, Rudolf Schock. Etc.  But when I am preparing a new role, I try my hardest to explore as many recordings, videos, books, articles, YouTube clips as I possibly can.  It opens my mind to greater possibilities and keeps me from marrying myself to the one perspective I have in my head.

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JS: Tell us a bit about your Toronto recital. It says you are doing Dichterliebe. Why have you chosen this famous cycle?

IS: I chose Dichterliebe because it is just so beautiful to me.  I first heard this piece when a friend performed it in Philadelphia years ago. I was blown away and always wanted to try it.  The poetry is amazing.  The use of words to convey these emotions of love unrequited is just breath-taking, and Mr Schumann spares nothing with his luscious and persuasive melodies.  I also love this cycle because Schumann gives the accompanist (Michael Shannon) beautiful solo moments, making him an equal and major part of the story.

JS: It also mentions on your program you are singing Strauss, Roger Quilter, and Aaron Copland. Can you tell us which songs?

IS: I chose two familiar pieces from Strauss’ thrilling Op. 27, “Heimliche Aufforderung” and “Ruhe, Meine Seele”. Also “Zueignung” from Op. 10. Also programmed are four of Quilter’s beloved setting of the Elizabethan Songs, plus three of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs.

JS: Please tell us about the Spirituals you are going to sing.  Do these spirituals have a special meaning for you given your faith? Does your faith guide you in your career and your everyday life?

IS: I try to let my faith and relationship with God lead everything!  I am a better man, husband, friend, and artist when God is in the driver seat. The spirituals chosen mean a great deal to me as some of them are songs from my childhood.  They were selected because of the simple, beautiful melodies that are both powerful and moving.  The theme of this part of the program is “Heaven” dedicated to those suffering loss due to senseless violence.  Why Heaven?  To me, Heaven means hope. In church, I used to sit and listen to preachers preach and singers sing all about a place called heaven.  This may sound morbid, spooky or even sad.  However, in the spirituals, heaven doesn’t mean death as much as it means life — a better life!  It underscores better times or circumstances ahead.  There’s so much hatred and gun violence in the world.  People are afraid and losing faith in humanity.  I just wanted to program spirituals I felt are uplifting, fun and would bring a little hope back.

JS: I noticed that you are going to make your Otello debut in November in Mexico. What are your thoughts on singing this very daunting heroic tenor role?

IS: I am very excited to finally get to perform this role in a fully staged production. I love this music and story so much!  It has been on my radar since 2004 when I was singing the role of Cassio.  At that time the conductor told me that I should pay close attention to the Otello in the cast.  Thinking I might have been doing something wrong, I asked why?  He replied with a slight grin on his face “because I am pretty sure you will sing this role.”  At the time, I thought he was a little nuts.  And even after years of hearing people say “you should learn Otello,” I didn’t start believing that it was actually a possibility until about 2011 when I was at the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices and then later in 2013 in Merola.  To say that it is a daunting role might be a huge understatement, however, a welcomed and exciting challenge.

JS: I think I speak for the other Toronto opera lovers who have seen your Siegmund — we hope you’ll come back to sing at the COC!  Tell us your upcoming engagements. I noticed on your website that in addition to Otello, you’re also singing Kurt Weill, and the Narraboth and Verdi Requiem. Anything further on the horizon?

IS: There are quite a few very exciting things coming… Of course, I will have to wait before I’m able to share them. I consider myself to be very fortunate to have these opportunities to sing so much great music, collaborate with wonderful colleagues and embrace warm-welcoming audiences like the people of Toronto.

JS: Thank you, Issachah. All my best wishes to you and your pianist Michael Shannon for a great concert! And all the best to you in your career.

IS: Thank you so much for the very kind and thought-provoking questions. I am very much looking forward to my time in Toronto.  Many Blessings.

#LUDWIGVAN

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Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So

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