Céline Forrest

What Makes a Great Singer? BBC #CardiffSinger

The BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition commences today, with the first two recital heats for the Song Prize taking place at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. As twenty classical music singers from around the world embark on the whirlwind week of their lives, we bring you an in-depth article by Steph Power from the Wales Arts Review archive. ‘What Makes a Great Singer?’ was written at the close of the 2013 competition. As well as reminding us of that year’s vintage contest, the piece takes a look at matters that will no doubt be absorbing us again throughout the week of wonderful singing and music-making to come. 

 

What does it mean to be a great singer? What are the elements that define greatness – and how do we decide if a singer possesses them? These are some of the most slippery and hotly contested questions in contemporary culture. Indeed, they are questions which go to the heart of culture itself; cutting across boundaries of musical style to show the vital importance that singing and music in the broadest sense – and the act of vocal expression itself – hold for us as human beings. Any answer is contingent upon a whole host of factors, many of which are entirely subjective and based on our different understandings of the type of music being sung: to be a great singer of free-style jazz or blues, say, might mean something very different from being a great singer of rock music or of German Lieder – or, fundamentally, it might not. And what about the singer whose voice may have all sorts of perceived ‘flaws’ but who despite that – or even because of it – perfectly captures some essence of their chosen genre in a way which touches people deeply?

Such questions can not only be subtle and emotive, but fraught with cultural politics; witness, for example, the divide between ‘popular’ and ‘art’ music that still persists for many mainstream devotees on either ‘side’ (with glitzy talent shows like The Voice cashing in on people’s desire for instant fame). But, if these questions are difficult to resolve, how much harder is it to determine what elevates a great singer to the level of star quality; indeed, to be crowned a ‘singer of the world’? And is it a question worth asking?

If the exceptional quality and spirit of the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition is the touchstone of my response then yes, emphatically, it is a question worth asking, however difficult to pinpoint or contentious the answers. The competition may have become more overtly glamorous over the years as its televisual profile has increased, but it is based upon real musical substance – and, whilst the arias and some of the art songs are inevitably performed out of context, many of the competitors this year managed nevertheless to ‘stop time’ (as Roger Parker and Carolyn Abbate describe operatic arias as doing) with performances of real depth and insight.

Indeed, this 30th anniversary year produced some stunning singers from a field of ‘greats’ – not least the glorious American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who deservedly won both the main Concert Prize and – more controversially – the Song Prize with a combination of grace, drama, wit and intelligence, all expounded by a thrillingly opulent voice and a staggering technique. (It is an extraordinary thought that, singing four contrasting characters in four different languages in arias by Cilea, Humperdinck, Berlioz and Sibelius’s orchestral song Var det en dröm Op. 37 No. 4 somehow felt the least of her accomplishments).

Jamie Barton winner of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2013 Photo: Brian Tarr
Jamie Barton winner of
BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2013
Photo: Brian Tarr

 

More than anything, Barton – and all her fellow competitors to varying degrees – seemed to embody something which has come increasingly to occupy the attention of opera lovers intrigued not just by what makes great singers great, but by what makes opera itself such a compelling art form despite its fundamental absurdities, and that is the notion of presence on a performing stage; the real, physical embodiment of something – be it a character or a narrative or an emotion – that transports us into abstract and often transcendent worlds. This paradoxical mixture of physicality and abstraction is part of the reason why it is so difficult to put into words what makes a great singer great, whatever the genre. But any great singer somehow shares the ability to achieve – through a certain physical quality of the voice and the body as a resonating instrument – a way of producing sound which is capable of transporting the listener by transcending that body, and those of the listeners, through which they hear and feel. Michelle Duncan puts it eloquently in terms of the relationship of the singing voice to language when she writes: ‘as anyone who has ever heard opera knows, the singing voice has moments where it tears language apart, or tears itself apart from language.’

In terms both literal and metaphorical, ‘opera can make us forget’; by which the authors of that comment, Parker and Abbate, mean that great operatic singing can make us forget not just ourselves for a moment of time, but that we are watching something unreal on a stage. Hence we forget all sorts of absurdities in the plot, and the unreality, say, of a Violetta dying of tuberculosis yet still able to sing in the most sublime way (as happens in Verdi’s La traviata). Actually, the whole point of opera is that it utilises these very absurdities and inconsistencies to invite us to take flight, into the world of the action on stage and away from the ‘real’ of the everyday; the very fact of drama that is sung is, of course, itself inherently ‘unreal’. But, paradoxically, in order to facilitate such flight, a great opera singer needs to have that sheer, heightened presence in a literal vocal and physical sense, as well as being entirely convincing on emotional and musical levels.

Far from being about some supposed ‘beauty’ of tone, then, great operatic singing is about something even more rare and elusive. As Welsh National Opera’s artistic director [and now, in 2015, Chair of the Cardiff Singer Panel of Judges] David Pountney put it, to possess an inherently ‘beautiful’ singing voice can even ‘get in the way’; after all, how many opera characters are simply – or at all – ‘beautiful’ and no more than that? It is far more important that a singer should have the ability to embody the fullest range of human emotion, from murderous rage to passionate desire via wistfulness and comic insolence. Indeed, what does ‘beauty’ really mean in an operatic context? I would argue that, in operatic singing at least, true beauty has little to do with some perceived perfection of vocal utterance, but rather with that indescribable combination of the physical with the metaphysical. And, in terms of physical beauty – what the singer looks like – whilst it is increasingly true that productions now aim for more ‘authentically real’ casting than hitherto, Cardiff Singer Patron Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is by no means alone in worrying that young – usually female – opera singers risk endangering their very instrument by starving their body in the pursuit of concepts of beauty that ultimately make no sense on the operatic stage – if anywhere.

Although great operatic singing may not be about technical ‘perfection’ per se, it does nevertheless presuppose an entirely sure and practiced technique; something without which the voice cannot function nor grow and develop over time. Coming back to the competition, obviously, it offered an opportunity to compare and evaluate the participating singers on a technical as well as a musical level, which gave the audience some great insights into the physical demands of art song and operatic singing, and hence an intriguing peek under the bonnet as it were and into the engine of opera itself. Cardiff Singer is one of the most prestigious competitions world-wide precisely because of the BBC’s excellent coverage across the media platforms, which enables that engagement with the process – although it must be said that the commentary on the BBC2 Wales highlights programme skittered into the inane at times. And must we shove microphones up people’s noses to ask them idiotic questions about how they’re feeling when they’ve just walked off stage? Of all the ways to ‘bring us back down to earth’ after a performance, this is surely one of the most crass. But then, alas, this is ‘classical music’; a species of culture which seems to strike such fear into the hearts of broadcasters that they feel they must bend over backwards to make it and its practitioners ‘accessible’ for viewers.

Thankfully, the sheer amount of coverage more than made up for the occasional gushing moment, and much of the commentary was fascinating and superbly done – Mary King in particular stands out as an articulate and passionate ambassador of great singing, together with Iain Burnside on BBC Radio 3, whose insights regarding song repertoire were a great asset. Cardiff Singer also happens to be justifiably famous for the informed passion of its live audience, as well as its genuine, personal warmth – not to mention the outstanding skill and generous encouragement of the two official piano accompanists, Llŷr Williams and Simon Lepper, with the resident orchestras, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Welsh National Opera Orchestra (conducted by Jun Märkl and Graeme Jenkins). This year, both orchestras acquitted themselves with aplomb, but Märkl excelled in his rapport with the singers, which left me wondering whether some singers who found themselves working with the nonetheless solidly able Jenkins may have felt they drew a somewhat shorter straw.

But equal playing fields often prove as chimeric as they are laudable to aim for. At least, however artificial the environment, competitions can be an opportunity for singers from nations with less strong or younger opera traditions to showcase their abilities internationally (this year saw the first competitor ever from Egypt, the soprano Gala el Hadidi, join entrants from sixteen other countries). It may be hard to expect singers from cultures as far removed from Western operatic traditions as China, Egypt and South Africa to compete on equal terms with Italians or Russians. But no German or French singer made it through the audition process to appear in Cardiff on this occasion – and, in any case, to compare sopranos with bass-baritones (as will inevitably happen on an operatic stage shared by sopranos and bass-baritones), is already a case of comparing ‘apples and pears’ – not to mention ‘varying degrees of ripeness’, as the excellent broadcaster, Donald Macleod put it, depending on the age and experience of the singer concerned.

Cardiff Singer is unique in offering participants the additional chance to compete for a Song Prize based on art song and Lieder repertoire; a contest which turned out to be controversial this year as some felt the marvellous English tenor Ben Johnson should have won the prize with his beautifully considered recital. For, of all the Song Prize finalists, it was he alone who constructed a programme around a poetic theme; conjuring an interior world of exquisite fineness and depth with settings of sonnets by Shakespeare and Petrarch (by Britten, Schubert, Parry and Liszt). Alas for Johnson, whilst he gave a great performance, which may easily have won in another year, here he was competing with a frankly astounding figure in Barton, who not only also managed to draw the audience into the intimate world of art song (proving an extraordinary interpreter of Brahms and Sibelius), but who did so without compromising the range of expression in a voice that is enormous in scope. So it was wonderful to see Johnson win the richly deserved Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize. But the fact is, whether one ‘likes’ competitions or not, opera itself is a hugely competitive world for singers – and mainstream opera is an increasingly global phenomenon, with singers who take differing approaches to a vast song repertoire besides.

In many respects, the popularity of Cardiff Singer is due to its unique atmosphere, which makes it as much a festival of operatic singing as an intense, high-stakes competition. As each of the twenty young singers (selected from a field of over 400) took care to point out, every competitor – and certainly every finalist – stands to benefit massively as a professional from the coverage that the competition affords, as well as the experience of competing against other superb singers. It is not just the main Concert Prize winners whose careers can be propelled into stellar realms, as Bryn Terfel can famously testify, having been pipped to the post of the main prize in 1989 by a certain Dmitri Hvorostovsky (having won the Song Prize). Post-competition, the making of a career is as much about finding the appropriate roles for the voice at particular stages of its development; not taking on too much too soon and risking damaging the voice in the long term. Again, as Terfel can testify, a bass-baritone capable of taking on Wagnerian roles, for example, takes many many years to develop and mature.

Ultimately, great singing in opera is so sought after because it is only through the performance of the voice that the ‘truth’ of opera is made apparent to us. Only then can the fundamental dualism which divides the subject and the object – by which I mean the audience and the performer, but also the physical body and the transcendent voice – be shattered such that we can enter those fantastical realms that paradoxically speak so profoundly to us of the realities of human emotion and experience. Choosing one voice as the greatest amongst great voices is bound to come down to subjective matters in the end – and must, in a top-level competition like Cardiff Singer, be based on achievement on the day rather than perceived potential. But, whatever one’s perspective, and regardless of whether one agrees with the judges’ various decisions, it is clear that the voices of all these exceptional young singers have the potential to continue resonating on stage and long after the performance for very many years to come.

 

For further investigation of the operatic voice and how we hear it try the following:

A History of Opera: the Last Four Hundred Years – Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker (Allen Lane, 2012)

In Search of Opera – Carolyn Abbate (Princeton University Press, 2001)
Metaphysical Song: an Essay on Opera – Gary Tomlinson (Princeton University Press, 1999)

For those with access to JSTOR:
Music – Drastic or Gnostic? – Carolyn Abbate (Critical Inquiry 30 No.3, Spring 2004)
The Operatic Scandal of the Singing Body: Voice, Presence, Performativity – Michelle Duncan (Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol.16 No.3, Nov. 2004)

Illustration by Dean Lewis