GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Green Bay is host to an international competition unlike any other in North America.
It is for singers of special high caliber.
Two women have devoted more than 20 years to the remarkable event.
For the first time, people anywhere can see – and hear – the event as it is livestreamed at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
The American International Czech and Slovak Voice Competition has quite a story behind it.
The far-ranging singing expertise of Sarah Meredith Livingston of UWGB touched base with community benefactor Sharon Resch, who is of Czech heritage.
The two are part of the revitalization of the heart and soul of music that once was completely stifled by the Soviet Union.
Sarah Meredith Livingston and Sharon Resch have the gears in motion for the 10th anniversary for the three-day showcase that will take place in early October.
Singers will come from anyplace across America or the world – maybe Poland and Japan this year. The application process continues to Sept. 23 – by way of uwgb.edu/voicecompetition – so the field still is to be determined.
Memorizing every note (with some exceptions) and singing without amplification, the singers will fill UWGB’s Fort Howard Hall with large and subtle sounds.
An important draw for the singers is that one of the judges is an assistant conductor of the famous Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York City.
In golden connection, Sharon Resch is friends with Gildo Di Nunzio from having danced and sung with him in a professional company of “The Music Man” in the middle of last century. Gildo Di Nunzio was coach for superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti.
Sarah Meredith Livingston says it is enticing for entrants that Gildo Di Nunzio is woven into the competition: “(For him) to hear them sing, they’ll come.”
The top cash prize is $5,000.
There are six cash prizes altogether, and private housing is free. Other assistance may be available along the way for entrants, whose age cutoff is 33 for women and 35 for men.
Importantly, the competition is a building block toward a world-class career that some past winners enjoy.
Green Bay may seem an unlikely place for such a prestigious competition, but it is another case of this: If you build it, they will come.
“We just do it, and the singers who win benefit a great deal,” Sarah Meredith Livingston says.
In the early years, the competition was a highly complex joint effort with an entity in Montreal, Canada. That ended.
“We are the only Czech-Slovak voice competition in North America,” Sarah Meredith Livingston says.
What about singing in Czech might be different than singing in any other language that would require something different from the singer?
Sarah Meredith Livingston says, “It’s a very singable language. It’s just a matter of learning the phonetics. Czech is based on Russian – the Cyrillic alphabet. So if you speak Russian, you very likely can sing well in Czech and Slovak and Polish. But it’s a very singable language. It’s a language of consonants. Not as much as Polish or Russian. I think it’s a soft language – a soft vowel language.”
Sarah Meredith Livingston and Sharon Resch share many other musical adventures along the way, some of them as cultural ambassadors abroad – such as teaching about American musical theater in Slovakia.
The scholarship and heritage of the two, respectively, are components in a larger picture.
“I think it’s really important that people know the Czech-Slovak repertoire,” Sarah Meredith Livingston says. “It’s the reason why we started (the competition) in the first place. During the Soviet occupation (1968-1991), all that music just got killed. It wasn’t performed, let alone in America.”
The competition includes a major proponent of the repertoire, Timothy Cheek of the University of Michigan. Along with being a dazzling, versatile pianist who accompanies the singers, he “is THE Czech specialist internationally,” Sarah Meredith Livingston says. “He also is a big draw for having singers come.”
Cheek coaches all over the world for Czech opera “and always is talking about the competition because it’s a pretty eclectic repertoire.”
Sharon Resch has been recognized for her efforts internationally (Trebbia International Awards, Prague, Czech Republic, 2016) and the U.S. House of Representatives (for “ongoing commitment to community philanthropy, worldwide humanitarian efforts, and the fine arts,” 2017).
Sharon Resch’s family name “from home,” as many people say in Northeastern Wisconsin, is Chmel. The family arrived in Minnesota from Czechoslovakia.
“My parents were Czech,” Sharon Resch says. “We spoke Czech when I was little, and I knew a lot about Czech folk songs and everything. I used to sing them. I couldn’t have been any more than five years old when I would go to a Czech festival and sing (she breaks into a lively, melodic tune). So I grew up with Czech. My grandparents always spoke Czech, so I always was interested in Czech things.”
The family came to America in 1936, Sharon Resch says. “They were from Pilsen (west of Prague). I just grew up with it. I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis. They had a Czech festival every summer in Hopkins, Minnesota. I’d be in the parade, and I’d do the folk dancing. And I did all this stuff – in the street.”
Sarah Meredith Livingston says, “It was ingrained in her. I’m just lucky I met you, that’s all.”
She is laughing. So is Sharon Resch as she says, “Yeah, you’re just lucky you ran into me.”
Sharon Resch’s mother and father were both Czech. Hvorka was her mother’s name from home. Another name in the extended mix is Kopeski.
“I was around Czech and Polish people growing up,” Sharon Resch says. “Then I wanted to go into the ballet, and I did classical music all the time. I like that, too.”
Long story short: Sharon Resch was a professional ballet and musical theater dancer with an extensive career who moved to Green Bay after she re-connected with, and married, a Minnesota high school classmate, businessman Richard Resch. Among the couple’s philanthropic endeavors is a $5 million gift for UWGB Music’s new Sharon Resch Institute of Music (featured here).
“It’s pretty special for the music department, oh, my goodness,” says Sarah Meredith Livingston.
“… For a little girl from Minneapolis,” Sharon Resch adds with a laugh.
Sarah Meredith Livingston beams as she adds, “… For a little ballet dancer who sang Czech folk songs. Now she’s got an institute of music.”
… And her hand in an intricate event designed in part “to keep alive and spread music that was repressed during the communist era and create a spirit of internationalism,” according to a statement.
The music in the competition is more than Czech and Slovak.
Singers fill out an application form that is definitive. They send in the form by Sept. 23, and it has to be approved before they are accepted.
“For the first round (Oct. 14), it’s very standard,” Sarah Meredith Livingston says. “It’s an Italian art song and a German lied – which isn’t even Czech-Slovak yet, because we just want to see how they sing…
“The second round (Oct. 15) includes a French aria, a Czech or Slovak piece in Czech or Slovak by a Czech or Slovak composer and a different aria from round one….
“The third round, the final round (Oct. 16), includes a Czech-Slovak art song as well as an art song aria – and that’s what really separates the men from the boys, so to speak.”
+ Professor Emeritus David Adams, tenor, Cincinnati Conservatory, Cincinnati, Ohio
+ Eva Blahova, Professor of Music, Mezzosoprano, Slovakia
+ Maestro Gildo Dinunzio, Metropolitan Opera, New York City, New York
+ Professor Laurie Lashbrook, soprano, Chair of Voice Department, University of Akron School of Music
Added for the finals:
+ Matthew Markham, Associate Professor, UW-Stevens Point
+ Sarah Meredith Livingston, Music, Professor Emerita, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
“The singers who win benefit a great deal,” Sarah Meredith Livingston says. “And Sharon’s generosity has sent people on their way. The thing that people (here) really don’t know is what happens to these singers when they leave because many of them have world-class careers.”
Here are a select few winners/finalists:
++ Jan Martinik (2003, of Brno, Czech Republic) was a fully engaged baritone-bass at the Berlin Opera House and is freelancing now.
++ Melody Wilson (2009) made her debut at Cincinnati Opera as Mercedes in “Carmen” and went on from there.
++ Benjamin Sieverding (2017) made his debut in New York’s Metropolitan Opera in “Hamlet.”
++ Lucie Kankova (2017, of Czech Republic) has performed in the Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland and England with assorted orchestras.
++ Grace Kahl (2017) is singing in concert engagements and with such American opera companies as Arizona, Des Moines and Dayton and will return to the American International Czech and Slovak Voice Competition to sing in the final concert at 2 p.m. Oct. 16 to honor the 10th anniversary of the biennial event.
Such accomplishments are unknown in the material for the competition.
Sarah Meredith Livingston says, “But that hasn’t stopped Sharon from forging ahead with it, and we do it because that is what the world really needs. We can’t lose sight of that sort of art…
“Now it’s standard operatic repertoire for a lot of opera companies to have ‘Rusalka’ on their list. (A rusalka is a water sprite from Slavic mythology, usually inhabiting a lake or river. “Rusalka” was the ninth opera Antonin Dvořák composed.) And when we started this 20 years ago, that was not the case.
“Since then, Des Moines has done it, Utah Opera is doing it this summer. All kinds of universities have been able to do it because the Czech is available. And you don’t sing those operas in English anymore, you sing in them in whatever tongue it is. And on the East Coast – in New York, at Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard – they all do Czech opera, composer Leos Janacek and all of those big guys. They’re kind of like Shakespeare in the vocal repertoire of the world – but (laughing) way more melodic.”