Opera singers from around the world paid €2,500 for the opportunity to come to Austria from 12-26 July and receive lessons, language diction coaching and most importantly masterclasses with the Mahler Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of respected Viennese conductor Wolfgang Scheidt. However, the 2014 Salzburg Voice Festival ended this week with a heated confrontation between the singers and organisers, and left several singers considering legal action against them.
An open letter was released on 25 July by 2014 course participant, Puerto Rican mezzo soprano, Laura Virella “to warn against and denounce the fraudulent actions of the Mahler Philharmoniker Society and its Salzburg Voice Festival”. According to Virella, none of the courses ran as they were promised, language diction tutors were deficient or non-existent and not one singer on the course spent any time working with the Mahler Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Scheidt.
Scheidt says he met the founders of the Mahler Philharmonic Society last year, when he was asked to be on the jury of their Leo Slezak Competition (part of the Salzburg Voice Festival). Scheidt told The Local “I am not a member of their board, they have wrongly connected me to this. Their so-called board is two people. They have abused my name by putting me in the board and when it was brought to my attention this week, I told them to eliminate it immediately.”
"I am so angry, so upset, you cannot imagine"
Scheidt is outraged by the treatment the singers have received. He told The Local “I am so angry, so upset, you cannot imagine. I want to make clear, I was a guest of the Mahler Philharmonic Orchestra, invited to give masterclasses for conductors and that is all. I was not aware that these young singers had been promised masterclasses with me and I am so angry that they have been treated in this way."
Scheidt went on to say ”The conducting masterclass students had a fantastic time and I am very proud of their work these last two weeks. I read the statement by singer Laura Virella this week and I was shocked. I feel so sorry for these singers and I want to personally offer them as a recompense, free of charge, to work with them for one week with piano on the operatic roles they would like to study.”
According to its founders, mezzo-soprano Thérèse Mahler and pianist Jonathan Floril, the Mahler Philharmonic Society is a Verein -- a not-for-profit music club -- dedicated to performing music of the late Romantic period. Ms Mahler told The Local that she has no direct family connection to the famous composer, and the shared name is purely a coincidence.
Mahler told The Local that the Mahler Philharmonic Society has run the Salzburg Voice Festival for the last four years, but only this year added an orchestra, and only in Vienna. In response to the complaints from this year’s singers, Ms Mahler told The Local “there were a lot of difficult personalities amongst the singers and they had unrealistic expectations.” She says the trouble with the singers started when the three finalists of the Leo Slezak Competition were announced. “The singers were not fully prepared and many of them were unable to reach the top level, based on the opinion of a seven-person jury.”
Virella disputes this in her open letter, saying the problems with the course began immediately, with deficient language teachers, locked performance spaces, a lack of concert organisation and repertoire and other issues like no Internet access at their accommodation for the whole course.
Virella further told The Local that "only certain pieces were available for the singers to perform in the Leo Slezak Competition, because they were the pieces the orchestra had rehearsed." Virella went on to say “there were not enough pieces for every participant to sing without repeating repertoire."
Organisers called the police
"They denied us the opportunity to repeat and compete. Instead, they assigned pieces to some people in the semifinals, and had the rest of the people sing song literature instead of operatic arias, making the competition uneven. Meanwhile, Thérèse Mahler had been practicing the arias herself with the orchestra. When the finalists were announced, they were still not allowed to sing these arias at the concert, because Thérèse was the one singing.”
Ms Mahler told the The Local that at a concert on 26 July, flyers denouncing the organisers were handed out to the audience by disgruntled students, some of whom also attempted to convince the orchestra not to play. In a heated exchange afterwards, a boyfriend of one of the participants threatened co-founder Jonathan Floril and, fearing for their safety, the organisers called the police. Ms Mahler told The Local “we will never do a contest at the end of training again, there is too much tension and disappointment. In fact, we will do no more education programs because our best intentions were not well received.”
So, simply a case of sour grapes, claim the organisers. However, after Virella’s open letter was published this week on Norman Lebrecht’s “Slipped Disc” website, strikingly similar complaints from previous participants of the Salzburg Voice Festival began flooding in.
Dabney Ross Jones, a soprano from the US, writes, “I attended this disaster in 2012! All I can say is we tried, we tried, we tried, to get this 'festival' shut down… I still have trauma from the experience and suffered a great personal and professional depression from the whole experience.”
Maria Elizabeth Bezuidenhout writes “The music fraternity should be alarmed and at all cost avoid any association with the so-called Salzburg Voice Festival, which included the so-called Leo Slezak Competition.”
Alexia Mankovskaya writes “I am a victim of 2012. It was very bad experience. Wasting time and money. If you need any support to shut down this 'international disaster' I am happy to help.”
In an email to the musicians of the Mahler Philharmonic Orchestra dated 27 July 2014, Ms Mahler says “We are very sorry for the lack of organization some of you might have experienced as well as the negative comments you might have heard about our society from some of the participants of the training programs (young singers and conductors). Last week's project was so complex and difficult to manage, that it just went out of our hands.”