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Music raises disease awareness at AIDS gala

A high profile politician, a witty TV host, and nine soloists making waves on the international opera scene: the AIDS gala in Bonn used high art to deliver a serious message on the future of AIDS prevention.Annalisa Stroppa’s coloraturas were spellbinding from the beginning. The Italian mezzo-soprano sang with precision, yet so fast that it was nearly hard to follow. Would she make it through the aria “Una voce oco fa” from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville?” She did. In contrast, the warm sound of American soprano, Janai Brugger, seemed to emanate from the depths of her soul.

Alexander Tsymbalyuk, a baritone of diabolical power, performed two arias from Arrigo Boito’s opera “Mephistopheles.” Born in Odessa, Ukraine, he displayed a radiance to equal that of his Georgian baritonal colleague, George Gagnidze, who gave a rendition of arias from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and Umberto Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier.” French mezzo, Virginie Verrez, and the Australian soprano, Siobhan Stagg – one delicate and refined, the other ardent – displayed two extremes in the art of singing.

Glimpse into the future of the art

Saturday evening (20.05.2017) in the Bonn Opera offered a selection of in-demand voices, without the listener having to travel to Venice, London, Berlin or New York. And that after three cancelations on short notice and two last-minute personnel changes. The organizers at the German AIDS Foundation must have been concerned. But American tenor, Joshua Guerrero, and Croatian soprano, Marigona Qerkezi, stepped into the roles set for other soloists with poise and proficiency, almost as though each had only needed to flip a switch to pull up arias by Verdi or Donizetti.

The strongest bravos were for the star of the evening, Attala Ayan of Brazil. Choosing highly-nuanced timbres in his interpretation of the aria “Che gelida manina” from Gioacomo Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” he took vocal brilliance about as far as it can go without exhausting his reserves. We’ll be hearing more from this tenor, who is only in his early 30s.

False modesty of a non-classical music fan

The evening’s host was German TV personality Oliver Welke. He described Helmut Andreas and Arndt Hartwig – the initiators of the Bonn Opera Gala – as having “good instincts” when they asked Christian Lindner last year to be the patron of the event. The head of the FDP is currently in the spotlight after Germany’s liberal party triumphed in last week’s election in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Welke didn’t try to disguise the fact that he was out of his element as the host of an evening at the opera, pointing to his snap research on Google and amusingly showing where the boundaries to such knowledge acquisition lie. It brought to mind the previous year’s host, Bettina Böttinger – another well-known personality on German television – who also quipped about her lack of knowledge about serious music. Yet such an approach may be suitable for this audience, most of whom don’t normally attend performances of classical music. But for a future event, perhaps the organizers will be able to find a host who doesn’t treat classical music as a specialty item, which reinforces the prejudice that you have to know a lot to get something out of it.

So much more to be done

With all the levity, Hendrik Streeck, Head of the HIV Research Institute at the Essen University Clinic, reminded the audience of the seriousness of the cause. “Consider that last week alone, more people died of AIDS than have ever fallen sick with ebola,” he said, “and you’ll know that we can’t wait for public policy to take over.” Streeck coordinates the efforts of HIV vaccine researchers in Germany and his position is co-funded by the German AIDS Foundation.

Its chairperson, Elisabeth Pott, called a report by UNAIDS which suggested that the disease could be conquered by the year 2030 “a major misunderstanding. It only means that among the people who are infected then, only those who cannot be treated early on will grow ill with AIDS. And currently only half of the people infected worldwide are getting treatment – no more than that.”

Considering the current global issue of there being 60 million refugees and displaced persons, the enormous task of treating and preventing AIDS becomes clear. “One shouldn’t fall for the notion that nothing more needs to be done,” added Pott.

Peter Limbourg, director general of the opera gala’s media partner DW, also referenced the worldwide dimension of the crisis that has disappeared from the headlines but nevertheless rages on. The broadcaster’s efforts, said Limbourg, can partially correct that: “The illness affects millions of people, for example in Africa. These people belong to our target audience, so we find it imperative to publicize the issue.”

The evening was rounded out by tastefully unobtrusive video projections and acrobatics. The bottom line: following last year’s yield, after expenses, of 205,000 euros ($230,000), Helmut Andreas Hartwig estimated this year’s results at 225,000 euros.

The recording of the gala can be heard for two weeks as audio on demand on the DW music program Concert Hour beginning on June 2 (dw.com/culture). Video excerpts are broadcast on Euromaxx on May 24 and on Sarah’s Music on May 25.

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