On October 29, 2023 at 3:00 p.m. in Schoenberg Hall at The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, Issachah Savage will perform as the featured artist for the second annual Judith L. Smith Voice Recital. Savage has dozens of opera roles to his credit and has received sparkling reviews as one of opera’s most daring voices. His stardom was established when he “swept the boards” at the Seattle Opera International Wagner Competition in 2014.
But he almost missed the Seattle competition.
“It wasn’t on my radar,” said Savage. “I was very young. And when I did learn of the Seattle competition, I didn’t really consider trying it out. I didn’t have much Wagner under my belt at that time. But my coach encouraged me to enter the competition. And I knew that Wagner would be important to me. I had a real affinity with Wagner, his music connected with me mentally, vocally, psychologically—in every way.”
Seattle Opera launched its International Wagner Competition in 2006. Contestants must be between 25 and 40, and must not have sung more than one Wagner role in an opera house. All told in 2014, nine finalists competed head to head, “American Idol Style” for $60,000 in prizes.
Savage won the Audience Award. Then he won the Orchestra Favorite Prize. And then he was announced as the winner of First Prize.
“When they first called my name, I couldn’t believe it,” said Savage. “I knew I had sung well, but I didn’t expect to win.” Then, things got surreal. “They just kept calling my name. It was like a dream. I really couldn’t believe it.”
But there was no doubt about it for Peter Kazaras, a judge at the competition the director of Opera UCLA.
“He made an immediate impression,” said Kazaras. “His voice was powerful, but it was also beautiful. That’s a difficult balance to maintain. He was dramatic, he could command a broad range of tones. He had power to share, but his voice was not just stentorian, but gorgeous. He had minute control of dynamics that he was unafraid to use.”
Savage’s 2014 success at the Seattle competition fueled a burgeoning career that has taken him to the best opera houses and concert stages of the world. Critics have since lauded his “mighty, tough-sinewed voice,” his ability to handle unnervingly difficult roles with “a fearsome musicality and unexpected grace,” and his “big, lyric sound” and “unflagging beauty.”
For Kazaras, Savage’s critical acclaim was no surprise. “I knew we would be hearing more of him. He just has enormous energy and such a lush palette, with a commanding voice to match.”
Savage grew up in Philadelphia in a home that was always filled with music. “Usually gospel,” said Savage, “Something from the Hawkins family.” His training ground was the church. He attended the Philadelphia High School for the Creative Arts, where he became familiar with the great opera singer Marian Anderson, and was one of the first scholar artists of the Marian Anderson Foundation.
He has since made an indelible mark in the world of opera, performing at Théâtre du Capitole Toulouse, Opéra National de Bordeaux, and with the Los Angeles Opera, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestra, among others. In 2019, he performed in the Salzburg Festival as Gran Sacerdote di Nettuno in Peter Sellars’ acclaimed new staging of Mozart’s Idomeneo.
“We are thrilled to have such an inspiring, dramatic, and sensitive artist perform for our second annual Judith L. Smith Voice Recital,” said Eileen Strempel, inaugural dean of The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. “His ability to connect to the most soulful aspects of music across genres and time, combined with his superlative artistry, make him the perfect fit for this statement series.”
Established by a generous gift from Judith L. Smith, the founding dean of The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, the Judith L. Smith Voice Recital featured soprano, and alumna, Angel Blue in 2022. Savage is the first tenor to appear. In addition to the recital, he will hold a public masterclass for voice students on Tuesday, October 31.