16 – 23 June, Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama / St David’s Hall, Cardiff
Held biennially, the Cardiff Singer competition creates a buzz in the city which extends beyond the concert hall. A waitress in a restaurant near to St David’s Hall told me that she been chatting to one of the finalists, in there for a meal. ‘It’s like American Idol, only opera, isn’t it?’ she asked me, really excited about it all. I think there’s probably more screaming in the audience for American Idol, and definitely a younger age profile, but otherwise the comparison is not as ludicrous as you might at first think. There is a palpable build-up of excitement and tension during the week of concerts, and an electric atmosphere in the hall on the night of the final.
This is first and foremost an opera competition, and arguably one of the most prestigious in the world. It was first held thirty years ago as a way of exploiting the broadcasting potential of the then-newly opened St David’s Hall. A lady I was sitting next to told me she had been there for the very first concert, when there was only a scattering of people in the hall. Nowadays the competition is well-established as a collaboration between BBC Cymru, Welsh National Opera (who provide one of the orchestras, as well as facilities and staff support) and the City of Cardiff, and it is good to see it attracting large and warmly appreciative audiences. Indeed Beti George, the stage presenter for the competition, gave credit to the welcome – the Welsh croeso gynes – extended by the Cardiff Singer audiences to the competitors. The atmosphere around the competition is a hugely supportive one, and although there is no getting away from the fact that this is a competition, it is not one in which there is any apparent back-stabbing between contestants. Arguments can get pretty heated between audience members though, as we all have our favourites!
This year there were twenty singers taking part in the competition. The selection process, refined over the years, this time allowed more than one from a country, and there were two contestants from each of England, Italy and South Korea. As host country, Wales has a guaranteed place. The audiences gave an especially warm welcome to Gary Griffiths, the Welsh contestant, but I was glad to hear that (en masse at least) they were not partisan, recognising that other singers were, in the event, more worthy of going forward to the finals.
Alongside the main competition, in which singers perform with orchestra in St David’s Hall, there is a parallel competition for the Song Prize. All the singers have the opportunity – but no obligation – to take part in this, and this year seventeen out of the twenty singers did so. Vocal coach Mary King, to whom I chatted about the competition one day during the week, said that she was delighted that so many of the singers had chosen to take part in the song competition. There is, as Mary pointed out, an enormous repertoire of art song to be explored, and although there is not a career to be made in song recitals alone these days, song is something which someone who has a successful career in opera can return to when they are older.
I also talked to Mary King about the singers’ choice of repertoire, and expressed to her my disappointment that there was no contemporary music in the competition. She reminded me that these singers – all aged between twenty-five and thirty-two – do not yet have the experience to manoeuvre around complex music in a competition setting, especially when singing with an orchestra who may not know the piece, and that it is greatly to their advantage to sing music with which they are completely comfortable.
This year the venue for the preliminary rounds for the song competition was moved from the New Theatre, which competitors had apparently found acoustically very dry, to the Dora Stoutzker Hall in the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Although this is a much better hall from a singer’s point of view, this move is not without controversy, as many regular attendees at the song competition recitals were unable to get tickets. The organisers attempted to get over the problem by adding banks of seats on-stage behind the performers, which might have offered some an unrivalled view of the accompanists’ hands but far from an ideal way of listening to a singer.
The final of the song competition took place in St David’s Hall, where everyone who wished to hear it was assured of a seat. I was pleased to see the 2000-seater hall was about three-quarters full. Where else would you get such a large audience along to a song recital? Song prize is translated into Welsh as Gwobr datganiad – literally recital prize. Many classical songs – certainly the Lieder written by Schubert and Schumann, the French mélodies of the nineteenth century and the English art songs of the twentieth century – were composed for the drawing room or small concert hall. In a traditional recital in which singer and pianist perform as a partnership the emphasis is on what my neighbour at the Song Prize final described as the ‘quiet centre’ of the voice. I would say that is the place from which the best communication between singer and listener takes place. Surround it by all means with vocal gymnastics to show off the voice, but without the quiet centre the emotion will be lost. The singer who demonstrated this best for me during the week was Belarusian tenor Yuri Gorodetski. I understood not a word of what he sang (which was all in German or Russian) but he moved me to tears, especially with the delicate spun sound of his final song; a reflective folk-song.
In the Song Prize final the English tenor Ben Johnson presented a recital of songs which were all settings of sonnets, by Britten, Schubert, Parry and Liszt. He sang with style and musical intelligence and although this was not ‘lollipop’ repertoire it was clearly very much enjoyed by the audience. Singers Bernarda Fink and Ailish Tynan (previous Song Prize finalist and winner respectively) who were guest commentators on the BBC during the final, both tipped him to win. He did not. The prize went to the American mezzo Jamie Barton, who might have wowed those who like big voices, but had Llŷr Williams battling gamely on the piano to make the sound of a full symphony orchestra to support her in her final Rakhmaninov song. Of course St David’s Hall is not a drawing room, but neither was this a recital. However, a sound bite from one of the competition judges indicated tellingly that he was looking for ‘an operatic sound’. That Ben Johnson received the Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize was of some consolation, but I am not the only member of the audience left wondering about the future of the Cardiff Singer Song Prize.
Jamie Barton also took the main prize in the competition. All five finalists were strong, and rose to the occasion with fine performances. Any one of them would have been a worthy winner. It was particularly encouraging to hear Croatian bass-baritone Marko Mimica come back after some trials and tribulations in his performances during the heats. He had demonstrated what he was capable of with his singing of Ravel’s Kaddish in his song heat, and is a singer to look and listen out for. As someone had written on their postcard displayed on the wall of memories of Cardiff Singer displayed in St David’s Hall foyer : ‘Marko Mimica: the voice of the future’.