The Lotte Lenya Competition celebrates 25 years 

click to enlarge Lotte Lenya. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Lotte Lenya.
America loves its singing competitions: “American Idol,” “The Voice,” “The Masked Singer,” “The Sing-off.” Yet sometimes the best vocal performances can be found not on streaming apps or TV, but in-person - and in Rochester.

The Lotte Lenya Competition, a singing contest presented by the Kurt Weill Foundation, celebrates its 25th anniversary this weekend in Kilbourn Hall at the Eastman School of Music. In honor of this milestone, the top prize is $25,000.

The competition was created in 1998 by Kim Kowalke, the president of the Kurt Weill Foundation and professor emeritus at the Eastman School of Music, as a way to highlight Lotte Lenya during her centennial year. Lenya, the wife of composer Kurt Weill, was an influential 20th-century singer and actor who elevated the importance of acting in singing performances.

“I thought, What can I do that would perpetuate the memory and legacy of Lenya, who was a very unique performer?” Kowalke said.

Lenya didn’t possess a conventionally beautiful voice, but she made up for it with an engaging dramatic delivery.

“She created a world that simply invited you in, and you believed every word,” he said.

Soprano Ruth Acheompong, a 2022 winner, says the competition is about more than just singing.

“The thing that I like about the Lotte Lenya Competition is that they don't just focus on your voice,” she said. “They want you to be able to tell a story and be able to act, and in many different styles.”

The Lotte Lenya Competition was designed to seek out singers who embodied the spirit of Lenya and could interpret a wide musical theater repertoire, rather than those who replicated her exact style. Because of this emphasis, a primary characteristic of the competition is that singers are required to perform one selection each from opera, operetta, Kurt Weill’s own catalog, and American musical theater more broadly.

Kowalke says demonstrating skill in both opera and musical theater is a crucial component of the contest.

“I think it is a way to build into the values of the competition a balance between singing and acting, so that it's not a voice competition,” he said. “It's a competition that values text as much as music."

Opera singer Brian Mulligan, a top prizewinner in 1998 (the inaugural year) and former Eastman School student said the competition is distinctive in the way it requires singers to stretch as artists and learn new things about themselves.

“Ultimately, the Lotte Lenya Competition is about finding and encouraging new artists,” he said. "There’s not many competitions out there that are going to actually inspire and direct a young artist to learn more about themselves, and really challenge themselves by having to perform all different genres.”

Many of the competition’s past finalists have gone on to have fruitful careers on the stage. One such singer, baritone and 2010 finalist Kyle Scatliffe, now performs on Broadway in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit musical “Hamilton” in the dual role of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette.

Scatliffe said his participation in the Lotte Lenya Competition helped give him the confidence he needed to be successful.

“It's an incredibly positive place,” he said. “You have all these people who are rooting for you, and the fact that you even made it to the finals is a victory in itself.”

The final round of the competition runs from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, April 29 at Eastman School of Music’s Kilbourn Hall, followed by a gala concert and award ceremony at 8 p.m. Both events are free; ticket registration is required for the gala concert.

Visit to for more information.

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].
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