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INTERVIEW | From the Heart: Tenor Issachah Savage And Beethoven 9

By Joseph So on June 6, 2022

Issachah Savage (Photo: Christopher Descano)
Issachah Savage (Photo: Christopher Descano)

It’s that time of year again.

As we approach late June, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra season typically draws to a close. And it usually ends with a flourish in the form of a blockbuster. This year is no exception. Given the world is seemingly in chaos with the war in Ukraine and with the Pandemic casting a long shadow, closing the season with the spiritually uplifting Beethoven Ninth, otherwise known as the Choral Symphony, is an inspired choice.

To showcase this monumental work, the TSO has assembled a superb quartet of soloists — soprano Angela Meade, mezzo Rihab Chaieb, tenor Issachah Savage and bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green. And, you can’t do better when it comes to choral forces than the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, a “national choral treasure” to my ears.

Of the soloists, I am particularly intrigued by American tenor Issachah Savage. He’s no stranger to Toronto, having made an auspicious debut way back in February 7, 2015, as Siegmund in COC’s Die Walküre. The tenor engaged to sing the role was indisposed, and Savage jumped in to save the show. Siegmund is the first voice in the opera, and the moment he sang the opening notes, my jaw dropped. Rich, voluminous, and beautiful, a youthfully heroic sound to die for. The normally reserved Toronto audience gave him a tremendous ovation at the end.

Savage returned to Toronto in October 2016, in an impressive song recital under the auspices of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto. That was his last Toronto engagement, until now. In the intervening six years, Savage has established himself as a fine dramatic tenor in both Italian and German operas, as well as a sought-after concert artist.

The current 2021-22 season finds him as tenor soloist in a string of Beethoven 9th performances in nine major concert halls in North and South America — he’s one busy tenor! I managed to catch him in-between performances for a little chat, to get his thoughts on singing Beethoven 9 and his career in general.

LvT: A very warm welcome back to Toronto, Issachah!  Opera fans here remember your Siegmund fondly. I count myself fortunate to have heard your recital for the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto. Hard to believe that was six long years ago. The last two years have been tough on the performing arts, and we’re just grateful to be back to in-person performances. Tell me — how did you cope with the two years of Pandemic? 

IS: Well, thank you Joseph for the kind greetings. You know, I think I probably coped with the Pandemic like everyone else: devastated, scared, anxious, unsure and yet hopeful. I, like many of my colleagues, had quite a few contracts canceled, but a few were just postponed. In the interim, I participated in many online ventures; a few recitals, choral projects, panel discussions, masterclasses, private lessons, interviews…. All of which I am abundantly grateful for. These online projects kept us alive, in the midst of so much tragedy.

LvT: Now, about your upcoming Beethoven 9. I checked your schedule, and it shows that you are in the middle of a long string of Beethoven 9 engagements — St. Louis, LA, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Toronto. After that you’re singing it at the Festivals in Vail, Colorado and at the Blossom Festival in Cleveland, followed by New York, San Francisco, and Sao Paulo…Wow! That’s a lot of Ode to Joy!!! What attracts you to Beethoven 9? The music? The text? Where did you sing your first 9th? 

IS: Well, that’s putting it mildly! It certainly is a lot of “Ode to Joy,” and it’s rather peculiar how I became so lucky. I was first hired to sing the tenor solo about 10 years ago with Choral Director Thomas Beveridge and the New Dominion Chorale; an all-volunteer local chorus based in Virginia. I had already been exposed to this work as a student at Morgan State University where I sang in the chorus. Of course, the sheer beauty of the music, particularly the way Beethoven uses two of my favorite instruments — the French horn and the cello — that’s enough of an allure. However, the message, very much like the music itself, will never get old or become irrelevant. The message of hope and unity, bringing us all to abundant joy, regardless of our differences. It’s definitely a message I hope to forever put out into the world.

LvT: To my ears, the tenor part is written for a voice like yours, a heroic sound with enough volume and ping to ride the orchestra. I heard both Jon Vickers and Ben Heppner sing it years ago. From a purely musical and vocal standpoint, it must be “an easy gig” given it’s so short, compared to roles like Tannhauser, which you sang recently! Are there any challenges for you in Beethoven 9? You’ve sung it so much that you probably can sing it in your sleep!  How do you keep it fresh, for you and for your audience?

IS: Compared to Tannhauser, certainly! But the tenor solo in Beethoven’s 9th is very deceptive BECAUSE of its length. And as you mentioned, it does require a full sound, while navigating the acrobatics in the vocal lines, and the brisk tempi in which Beethoven wanted it done. I try to keep my performances fresh by first revisiting the text every time. While I do believe the “Ode to Joy” never gets old, how I feel those words may differ depending on what experiences are shaping my perspective at the time. So, revisiting the text organically offers a freshness that for me keeps it from feeling routine.

LvT: I know you are a man of faith. What goes through your mind when you are singing Beethoven 9, singing the Ode to Joy text?  I ask because the world seems to be in chaos right now, with the war and all the suffering in Ukraine. Peace and universal brotherhood seem to be a long way off…. 

IS: Now, I almost hate to answer this, because I know my answer will seem a bit anticlimactic or cliché. But I actually do whisper a little prayer before I sing. I ask not only for the strength to do a good job, but also that the experience, the music, the words, the ambience and all that come with it, will be transformative and enlightening, bringing us closer to shared humanity despite our differences. I believe this is in fact what Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is all about.

LvT: To my ears, your voice is perfect for Wagner, as your Siegmund here demonstrated. And I understand that you sang Tannhauser at the LA Opera recently. What was that experience like? It’s one of the toughest of all Wagner tenor roles. Did you also sing Parsifal somewhere?

IS: No, I haven’t sung the full role of Parsifal yet, but it’s still pretty high on the bucket list. Tannhauser at LA Opera was quite the experience and one I will never forget! Firstly, getting the offer to sing a role like Tannhauser is completely exhilarating, but extremely daunting. The seemingly endless quantity of how much he sings throughout the night is enough to scare anyone. But I had been asked to sing Tannhauser before, but it was just not the right time. So, in the meantime I spent that time lightly studying and listening to the part. By the time the opportunity at LA Opera came around, a great deal of the music I already knew and was confident to say yes. And what a cast, director, conductor, music staff and crew! I was very fortunate to have such a supportive company to debut this role.

LvT: I think it’s unusual for a relatively young artist like you to tackle a fiendishly difficult role like Tannhauser. You know that years ago, Jon Vickers was scheduled to sing Tannhauser at Covent Garden, but he cancelled? The reason he gave was that the character was sinful and it was against his faith to sing it. What do you think of his reasoning? I guess what I’m asking you is — does your faith has anything to do with what roles you choose to sing?

IS: It almost feels like a sacrilege to say this because I admire Mr. Jon Vickers’s work so much. But I disagree wholeheartedly with his assertion that the role of Tannhauser is sinful! Tannhauser is human! Every human that I’ve ever met, me included, grapples with the conflict of spirituality & humanity. And both coexist in the same being; one doesn’t cancel out the other. And Tannhauser shows us this struggle very vividly. No human is 100% anything, so I don’t hold my opera characters to such a standard. Also, I don’t use my faith to help me pick roles. If I had to pick a role based upon the character being holy or not, what would I sing? Mr. Vickers sang Siegmund, Radames, Samson and Otello — among them you have lies, murder, adultery and fornication. I’m not so sure Tannhauser is really all that different in his spiritual struggles.

LvT: While we’re on the subject of roles, are you planning to sing more Wagner in the future? You’ve also sung Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos early in your career. Any more Strauss in your future?

IS: Yes! I am delighted to share that there are a lot more Wagner and Strauss on the horizon, but unfortunately I’ll have to wait for the companies’ green light to say more.

LvT: We’ll wait with bated breath! Your schedule shows that you’re singing your first Gurrelieder, as well as the High Priest in Idomeneo at the Met. Any chance that in the future you might sing Idomeneo himself?  I heard Heppner sing it at the Met 30 years ago. It’s a great role for a heroic tenor voice like yours.

IS: Idomeneo is indeed a wonderful role and one of my early studies. If given the opportunity I would strongly consider it, and not because of the heft that is often associated with the part, but more so because I do love the story and the vocal agility that this role demands.

LvT: You have such a busy schedule. How do you keep your voice healthy? Do you still work with a teacher? How many performances would you say you sing in a typical year?  You seem to be singing less opera and more concerts….is that the case?

IS: Honestly, I just try to not sing more than I have to, in volume or quantity. I also take vocal rests very seriously. Sometimes I can even appear a bit anti-social on contracts because I will decline social outings just so I don’t have to talk. And the bigger the assignment, the more conservative I become. Also, much credit goes to my coaches, whom I often call my ears. I try to check in with them as much as I can, when I can. Now, how many performances I sing in a year depends greatly on the combination of contracts, which of course are never the same., i.e. opera, recital, orchestral works, and concerts, so I wouldn’t have a definitive number. While companies and orchestras are still trying to recover from the harsh and residual effects of the Pandemic, programing has been slow to recover, and is ever-changing in a lot of places. So yes, I am doing a bit more concert work than I ever have in my career, and for that, I am grateful!! For me, it’s more about the opportunities being the right fit.

LvT: Thanks so much, Issachah, for sharing your thoughts, and toi toi toi for the TSO performances!

IS: Thank you so much Joseph, it’s been my pleasure.

Toronto Symphony Orchestra Beethoven 9th performances: June 15/16/18 at 8 p.m., 19 at 3 p.m. Roy Thomson Hall, tickets here.

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Joseph So
Joseph So
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