About a year ago, Emerson alumnus Jim Schubin had sung his way into the finals of the Lotte Lenya Competition for the second time in a row, but had once again come up short. It was the fourth time he had entered the prestigious international musical theater competition.
He was undeterred.
“I immediately knew I was going to enter again…,” Schubin ‘11 said. “And I went home and worked on songs.”
This April, Schubin, in his fifth trip onto the stage at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, won over the judges with his clear tenor and acting ability. He tied for first place, beating 12 other finalists and taking home a $15,000 cash prize.
Schubin “embodied the competition’s motto of ‘Singing the Story,’” the judges said in a press release. “He gave a riveting performance, showed engaging presence and effortless communication, and yet still seemed as if he was inventing it all on the spot.”
The Lotte Lenya Competition was founded in 1998 in honor of the 100th anniversary of the late German stage star’s birth. It is sponsored by the Kurt Weill Foundation, a musical foundation created to preserve the legacies of Weill, a renowned German Jewish composer of the 1920s-1940s, and Lenya, his wife and muse. Past winners have gone on to appear in Broadway and West End shows, and in concerts and opera stages globally.
Each contestant performs four pieces. There can be some overlap, but one piece must have been written before 1968, one written after, one has to be an aria from an opera or operetta, and one needs to have been written by Weill himself.
Schubin performed “Try Me” from She Loves Me (pre-’68), “Serenade” from The Student Prince (operetta), “How Much I Love You” from One Touch of Venus (the Weill piece), and “Taking Flight” from Allison Under the Stars (post-’68).
“I really loved ‘Taking Flight,’” Schubin said. “It’s just a sad, stunning little piece. Pretty much from the moment the song starts, in the first 16 bars, you know where the song is going, but when it ends, the audience is always crying. It always lands.”
“Taking Flight” was actually recommended to Schubin by coaches at the Foundation, and not something he necessarily would have chosen on his own.
Nurturing young performers
The special thing about the Lenya Competition, Schubin said, is that the judges actively mentor performers, before and after the competition, giving them vocal and acting advice, suggesting pieces that will best show off their talents.
“After I didn’t win last year, I called them up, and I said, ‘Look, obviously I’m not messing around here, I really want to talk to you about this,’” Schubin said.
They told him that while he can sing opera, he’s really a musical theater guy, so he should focus on his strengths. They suggested “Taking Flight,” as well as the Weill song, “How Much I Love You.”
“They’ve been watching me ‘grow up’ singing for the last five years, so they had a good idea of where my voice is going,” Schubin said.
While the song selection no doubt helped his winning performance this year, he said he’s also had a lot of time to put in the work on the material this time around. He’s been traveling with the national tour of The Sound of Music, which has given him the chance to focus on his performing chops, he said.
He has been part of the male ensemble in The Sound of Music, as well as an understudy for the part of Rolf Gruber, but this week in Detroit he’ll take the stage as Rolf, paramour of the eldest von Trapp daughter and conflicted Nazi.
Schubin said he wouldn’t be where he is – international competition winner, national touring performer – were it not for Emerson voice instructor Michael Kreutz, who encouraged him to enter the Lenya Competition in the first place. (He also gave a shout-out to associate professor Scott Lafeber and senior artist-in-residence Ted Hewlett).
“I knew that he would work hard because, well, I have to admit, he was one of the most driven students that I ever had,” Kreutz said.
He said every time Schubin entered and lost the competition, he would find out more about what the judges were looking for and set that as a goal for himself, until eventually, he cracked the code.
Kreutz admitted he was a “tiny bit” surprised Schubin won first place – not because he isn’t talented enough or doesn’t work hard, but because the Lotte Lenya Competition is so huge, drawing contestants from around the world.
“Of course, I’m surprised in some way, but I’m not surprised that he had the tenacity to keep going, keep doing it, keep learning what he needed to do to make it,” Kreutz said.
Schubin said his Sound of Music contract is up in September – beyond that he isn’t sure what’s in store for him. On July 6, he and his wife, Joan Schubin, MA ’12, will perform Broadway songs with the Ocean City Pops in Ocean City, New Jersey.
Even after competing five times in Lotte Lenya, and standing on stages around the country, performing never becomes routine.
“I think it’s just exciting, and the butterflies are still there,” Schubin said. “But that’s how I think performing should be, and if it’s not, you’ve lost something.”