by | Feb 1, 2024

Melba Opera Trust has announced a new scholarship endowed in memory of the revered bass-baritone John Wegner (1950–2019). The scholarship, established by Wegner’s widow, Mignon Wegner, will support the development of young Australian opera singers as well as honouring Wegner’s contributions to the art form and his legacy as a ’complete artist’.

Over the course of a 33-year career, German-born baritone John Wegner made his name as a magnificent singer-actor, not only in Australia – where he began his career as a principal artist with the then Australian Opera – but in Europe, singing in major opera houses such as Bayreuth. After his death in 2019, he was described as an ’audience favourite’ as well as ’an idol to many of his colleagues and an inspiration’.

The cutting short of Wegner’s career just as it was at its peak meant that many of today’s emerging opera singers missed the chance to experience this inspirational performer live on stage. But through the establishment of an opera scholarship in his memory, Wegner’s legacy and inspiration will now continue.

The scholarship, administered by Melba Opera Trust, will provide annual funding in perpetuity and has been set up by Mignon. She says, ’It takes more than just talent to have a good career as an opera singer, so I hope that the John Wegner AO Opera Scholarship will help someone with vocal talent gain the other skills they’ll need to succeed in a career on the opera stage.’

This philosophy is central to Melba’s career development program, which ensures that young singers are nurtured as well-rounded artists – musically, in their stage craft, as professionals, and in their physical and mental well-being. Because the Melba Program is entirely scholarship funded, meeting the full cost of participation, endowed scholarships such as the John Wegner AO Opera Scholarship are crucial to ensuring that valuable pathways for young Australian artists are secure for the future.

Amy Black, CEO Melba Opera Trust, says, ’We are very proud that a perpetual scholarship has been established in honour of the late great baritone John Wegner AO. The scholarship will ensure that John’s contribution to the operatic community will continue to be remembered for generations to come and will help young aspiring singers to follow in his extraordinary footsteps.’

Sharolyn Kimmorley AM, Melba’s Artistic Manager and Artist Advisor, played for John Wegner’s Australian Opera audition at the beginning of his career in 1981. She recalls, ’He had this ability to use his voice to create powerful and honest performances that adapted to each character he played.’

Another distinctive aspect of John’s work was his holistic approach to his craft. Sharolyn says, ’John was very much into fitness and he strongly believed that singers should work with performance psychologists as elite athletes were beginning to do. He knew the importance of the singer’s body, their fitness, their mental wellbeing, their ability to deal with the pressures of performance. That holistic approach is now an integral part of our program at Melba, but John was way ahead of his time to be thinking this way in the 1980s.

Wegner was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2014, bringing an unanticipated end to a flourishing career, both in Australia and in Europe. It also robbed him of the opportunity to pass on insights and experience to the next generation. As Mignon says, ’John was always conscious of helping young singers and was always ready to give advice. And I’m sure if he’d lived longer, he would have been involved in some way in the promotion and support of young singers, just as he was supported when he started his own career.’

Queensland baritone Aidan Hodder is the inaugural recipient of the new scholarship. Aged 25, he is one of those young singers who stepped into the world of opera too late to have seen Wegner performing on stage. But, Hodder says, ’the recordings are truly awe-inspiring – not only the consistency and warmth of his sound, but his absolute dramatic intensity. This scholarship will allow John’s ability to connect with people through music to live on, and I’m honoured to be the inaugural recipient.’

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