The most striking feature of the first Mirjam Helin Competition was the high standard of the Chinese competitors. The prize for women was won by mezzo-soprano Ning Liang, who joined the solo ensemble of the Hamburg State Opera in 1989 after further studies at the Juilliard School in New York. Then followed invitations to appear at La Scala, Milan and the Vienna State Opera, where she was that Opera's first Chinese singer. Her debut at the New York Metropolitan came in 1993, as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. It seems she has now returned to China, where she mainly teaches at the China Central Conservatory of Music.
The winner of the prize for men, Russian baritone Vladimir Chernov, has likewise made a career as a teacher, as a Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Before his victory in Helsinki he had studied singing both at the Moscow Conservatory and at the La Scala Opera Studio. The three years he spent working at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg gave him plenty of professional experience. In the latter half of the 1980s he began making regular guest appearances at the most illustrious opera houses in the Western world. At the Metropolitan he was much in demand by the Met's chief conductor James Levine, especially for the baritone roles in operas by Verdi. On the complete recording of the Verdi operas conducted by Levine he sings the title role in Rigoletto, Rodrigo in Don Carlos, Miller in Luisa Miller and the Count di Luna in Il Trovatore. The Russian baritone convincingly demonstrates his Slav expressive powers as Prince Yeletsky in the recording of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades conducted by Valery Gergiev.
Dilbér, a soprano from the Uyghur region of China, can claim her share of the glory of Chinese singers. Over the years she has become highly familiar to Finnish audiences, for after becoming a regular member of the Finnish National Opera ensemble in the early 1990s she took out Finnish citizenship. In recent years she has made her home in Malmö in Sweden, from where she travels all over the world to sing in both concerts and operas. She is a singer with a dazzling coloratura technique and a repertoire that takes in such taxing roles as Lucia di Lammermoor, Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos and Olympia in The Tales of Hoffmann.
The second prize for men that year went to German baritone Olaf Bär, who particularly impressed the Jury with his fine renderings of German Lieder. Only a year after the competition he was offered a chance to record Schumann's Dichterliebe and Liederkreis, Op. 39. These have since been followed by such works as Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise and Schwanengesang. Though his reputation rests primarily on Lieder, Bär also has an extensive operatic repertoire for lyric baritone and has, among others, sung at the Dresden and Vienna State Operas, Covent Garden and Bayreuth.
Some of the prize-winners in the second Mirjam Helin Competition have likewise risen to the top of the vocal world. Holding pride of place is German bass René Pape. Having received his initial schooling in music in the Kreuzchor of his native Dresden, he was already a soloist at the Berlin State Opera before the Mirjam Helin Competition. Since then he has become familiar with all the great opera houses, such as the New York Metropolitan, at which he has been a leading light for more than a decade already. He has been the soloist on many recordings of concert music and opera, under such conductors as Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Colin Davis, Georg Solti and Franz Welser-Möst. He recently released an aria disc of his own, his first, that has won universal acclaim.
The doors to the Met have also opened for the winner of the women's prize that year, Hungarian soprano Andrea Rost. In the very year of the competition, 1989, she was appointed to the solo ensemble of the Budapest State Opera. Two years later she debuted at the Vienna State Opera, in such roles as Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, Adina in L'elisir d'amore, Violetta in La Traviata and Lucia di Lammermoor. Since 1996 she has also sung such roles to great acclaim at the New York Metropolitan. One of her favourite parts has been Gilda in Rigoletto, which she is singing this August at the Budapest State Opera, to mark her first 20 years as a professional artist.
Second in the men's category was the robust-voiced US tenor Salvatore Champagne. In the early 1990s he clocked up solo parts at ten Central European opera houses, among them the Bavarian State Opera and the Zurich Opera. Since returning to the United States he has concentrated on teaching and is now a voice professor in the N. American town of Oberlin.
The first runner-up in the women's category that year was Swedish mezzo Charlotte Hellekant. Charlotte has been much in demand on both sides of the Atlantic, for both concerts and opera. She has an extensive repertoire ranging from Baroque to contemporary- a good example of the latter being Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre. She has sung Amando in this opera in the performances conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen in Salzburg and Paris, as on the complete recording. Finnish audiences well remember her for her performance last spring in Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, when she gave a convincingly intensive rendering of Bluebeard's wife Judith.
The third Mirjam Helin Competition was a greater success for Nordic singers than the previous two. There were two Finns and one Norwegian in the top three women, and a Swedish baritone won the second prize for men. Going up to receive the winner's prize was no new experience for soprano Kirsi Tiihonen, for she had already been awarded the first prize in the Timo Mustakallio Competition, the Lappeenranta Singing Competition and the international competition in Rio de Janeiro. Added to this list of prizes in 1995 was that for the best performance of a Lied in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Highlights of her fine operatic career have since included the demanding soprano leads in operas by Verdi, Wagner and Richard Strauss, which she has sung at the Finnish National Opera, the Savonlinna Opera Festival and in Milan, Berlin, Basel, Copenhagen and other European cities. Kirsi Tiihonen features at this year's Mirjam Helin Competition as an expert on radio and TV programmes.
The prize for men that year went to Chinese baritone Chen-Ye Yuan. A singer with a sumptuous voice, he has also reaped success in other competitions. Heading the list is the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, where he won the big prize. Houston Opera in America, where he has a regular contract, has since become his home stage. In other respects, too, his career has been oriented towards the US opera houses.
In 1994 the winner of the second prize for women was mezzo Lilli Paasikivi. Unlike many of her Finnish colleagues who studied at the Sibelius Academy, she travelled to Stockholm and London to train in the noble art of singing. Like another Finnish mezzo, Monica Groop, she is at present enjoying a spectacular international career and working with such celebrated maestros as Esa-Pekka Salonen, Maris Jansons and Simon Rattle. She is down to sing in many performances of works by Gustav Mahler and such parts as Brangäne, Fricka and Kundry in stage performances of Wagner operas.
Second in the male league was Swedish baritone Karl-Magnus Fredriksson. The year after the competition he made his debut at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm, where he became a regular soloist in 1999. There at his home opera he has been assigned many baritone leads. His expressive, almost tenor-like baritone also has the power required for such works as Sibelius's Kullervo. On the disc of Kullervo conducted by the English maestro Colin Davis he sings the part of Kullervo.
Following in the wake of these two Finnish singers was the fresh-voiced Norwegian soprano Bodil Arnesen, whose career was further boosted by many high placings in singing competitions in Norway and Germany. The emphasis in her repertoire is more on oratorio and solo songs and less on opera. In addition to live performances she has been in great demand for recordings and can be heard not only on her own solo discs but also as the soloist in many choral and orchestral works.
All the women who got through to the final of the 1994 Mirjam Helin Competition have won themselves a foothold in the global singing market. The same also applies to Polish mezzo Urszula Kryger, who came fourth. Victory in the prestigious ARD competition in Munich somewhat made up for her slightly unlucky performance in the Mirjam Helin Competition earlier in the year. First prizes were also bestowed on her by the Moniuszko Competition in Warsaw and the Brahms Competition in Hamburg. Kryger's international opera career began with the title role in Rossini's La Cenerentola at the Dresden State Opera in 1996. She is particularly prized as an elegant, sensitive interpreter of the songs of Frédéric Chopin. These she sang on an international concert tour the main concert of which was held at La Scala, Milan, and she has released a whole CD of Chopin songs.
At the fourth Mirjam Helin Competition victory in the women's category was claimed by Latvian mezzo Elina Garanča, who nowadays represents the cream of the world's operatic elite. The very year after she won the competition she was snapped up by the Frankfurt Opera, and a couple of years later she was offered a solo contract at the Vienna State Opera. She made a highly-acclaimed debut at the New York Metropolitan in 2008 as Rosina in The Barber of Seville. Last May audiences around the world were able to admire her in the title role of Rossini's La Cenerentola when the Met screened its production online at countless cinemas. Her engagements for late summer and the coming autumn include the title role in Carmen in Rome and London. Garanča's art is a happy combination of musicality, a beautiful voice and superb technique. They are qualities that can be admired on four solo discs and the complete recording of Bellini's The Capulets and the Montagues, in which she and soprano Anna Netrebko sing the main leads.
The top prize in 1999 was awarded to Marcin Bronikowski, a Polish baritone who sang with unfailing assurance. Before this, he had won prizes in no fewer than nine singing competitions. In speaking of him it really is true to say that he has appeared on numerous leading opera stages, among them such illustrious ones as Covent Garden in London and the Moscow Bolshoi.
The masterly, polished performances of Ukrainian soprano Olga Pasichnyk appealed to the Jury of the 1999 competition so much that it awarded her the second prize. Like Elina Garanča, she has won herself an established position at the hub of the singing circuit. Of all the Mirjam Helin Competition winners she has probably recorded most of all and so far has over 40 discs to her name. These include solo CDs, oratorio and opera, such as Donna Anna in the production of Don Giovanni conducted by René Jacobs. The prestigious German opera magazine Opernwelt singled her out as opera singer of 2005 for her performance as Almirena in Handel's opera Rinaldo. Her unusually wide repertoire stretches from music of the Renaissance to the present day.
Awarded the third prize for men in 1999 was Swedish baritone Gabriel Suovanen, a singer with strong Finnish roots. As a protégé of the Opera School in Stockholm he was initiated into the world of opera at an early age. Before entering for the Mirjam Helin Competition he had already been the Swedish Radio's Artist of the Year. He has so far sung opera at the Finnish National Opera, the Savonlinna Opera Festival, in Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Berlin and elsewhere. The most challenging of his forthcoming engagements is the title role in Wozzeck in Antwerp. Suovanen has enchanted Finnish audiences with his warm baritone and his strong ability to make whatever he sings come alive.
Eglise Gutiérrez, winner of the prize for women, has repeatedly melted the hearts of Finnish audiences as Lucia di Lammermoor for two seasons at the Savonlinna Opera Festival. The respect held for this Cuban soprano is further demonstrated by the fact that the Festival chose her as its Artist of the Year for 2009. She is most at home in bel canto operas, and such composers as Bellini and Donizetti feature large in her repertoire. Her forthcoming debuts in Madrid, Florence and at Covent Garden, where she will sing the title role in Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix, are proof indeed that her career is rising sharply.
The winner of the prize for men, tenor Woo-Kyung Kim from South Korea, also seems well set to make a fine international career. His operatic career has been further boosted by prestigious victories in the Belvedere Competition in Vienna, the Francisco Viñas Competition in Barcelona and the Operalia Competition in Los Angeles. Kim has already captivated highly critical audiences at the Dresden State Opera, Covent Garden and the New York Metropolitan. His recording career has also got off to a good start, with a CD released last year on which he sings music from his homeland in a way that speaks straight to the heart. His second disc, recently released, features a selection of popular Italian and French tenor arias.
Despite her lack of years, Russian mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova, in second place, has already been assigned some demanding roles in performances conducted by such celebrated maestros as Daniel Barenboim, Valery Gergiev, Riccardo Muti, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Simon Rattle. At the Met she has sung Hélène Bezukhova in Prokofiev's War and Peace. Forthcoming engagements include a performance of Verdi's Requiem conducted by Gustavo Dudamel in Los Angeles and her debut at the Bavarian State Opera as Amneris in Aida.
Also well on the way to a fine international career is the first runner-up in the men's category, the splendid-voiced Turkish bass Burak Bilgili, who supplemented the vocal studies begun in his homeland with further tuition in the United States and Italy. In addition to the Mirjam Helin Competition he has done well in many other competitions and taken the first prizes in the Belvedere Competition in Vienna and the Alfredo Kraus competition in Las Palmas. He nowadays guests at leading opera houses the world over. He made his Metropolitan debut in 2004 as Leporello in Don Giovanni, sang Escamillo in Carmen at the 2006 Savonlinna Opera Festival and Giorgio Valton in the Festival's production of Bellini's I puritani this year.