Halfway through the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition 2021, Nigel Jarrett offers some tongue-in-cheek thoughts on why musicians use skill and training to assert their superiority for cash prizes and advancement.
Music seems a strange choice as the basis for a competition. In any other test of prowess, contestants are ranged against each other in gladiatorial combat. Points of one form or another are scored, or feats of skill and strength graded from superlative down. The outcome is mostly self-evident and requires no determination by a third party or judge. Most importantly, winning and losing says something about the aim of the contest: to defeat an opponent in front of a partisan crowd and to provide entertainment in doing so. A musician vanquished is an odd construct.
Such thoughts arose once again as the biennial BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition arrived on cue and on time this week, having brushed aside the constraints of a pandemic to present an audience-free contest at source and offer itself on TV and radio. There’s a main prize for orchestra-accompanied vocal music, mainly opera, and one for piano-accompanied song. The final for the first is on Saturday and the final for the second is tomorrow (Thursday). St David’s Hall will house the main prize and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama provides a venue for the heats. Now in its 20th year, the contest has set some of the world’s biggest opera stars on the route to international fame, among them Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Bryn Terfel, Jamie Barton, and the 2019 winner, baritone Andrei Kynach from the Ukraine. TV viewers and radio listeners will be able to access all the rounds and the final for the Main Prize and the Song Prize on BBC Four, BBC Two Wales, BBC Radio Three, BBC Radio Wales and BBC Radio Cymru.
This year, 16 singers from 15 countries are competing; Madagascar and Kosovo are represented for the first time. The jury is chaired by Aidan Lang, General Director of Welsh National Opera, with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Welsh baritone and former Song Prize winner Neal Davies and US soprano Roberta Alexander. The Orchestra of WNO is conducted by Michael Christie and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales by Andrew Litton. The Song Prize accompanists are Llyr Williams and Simon Lepper, and the jury is chaired by John Gilhooly, Artistic Director of the Wigmore Hall. The Main Prize winner (BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2021) will receive £20,000 and the Song Prize winner will be awarded £10,000, each with trophies. The Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize will receive £2,500 plus a trophy.
On BBC Four, the Song Prize final will be tomorrow (Thursday, June 17) and the Main Prize final on Saturday (June 19), both at St David’s Hall.
Now. Back to basics. It’s not that music is a stranger to competition. The brass band scene in the UK is predicated on the renown won in competition, with the ‘best’ bands attracting long-term commercial subvention in which the sponsor’s name becomes the name of the band. It’s an example of a realistic setting of priorities. Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg (The Mastersingers) is about a song contest and the winning of a woman’s hand in marriage, the lucky contestant being Walther von Stolzing, who sings one of the best-loved melodies in all opera, and the loser being the absurd town clerk Sixtus Beckmesser, through whom Wagner proves how musical performances – as well as concepts – can be irredeemably bad. The contest in Die Meistersinger belongs to the world of medieval guilds and the story is treated as an allegory of art recounted as a love tale with comic touches; but not all that comic, if truth be told. In Wales, the bastion of art is the eisteddfod, at which prizes are scattered to competition winners like gold coins from a hoard. (Dame Gwyneth Jones, who’s been a Singer of the World judge, tells the story of how as a young woman in Pontypool would win prizes at eisteddfodau in which medals or coins were presented in little leather bags.)
BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, formerly just Cardiff Singer of the World, before the Beeb took control, realised that art song had to be distinguished from opera, so two categories were created. The final contestants, chosen at auditions worldwide, can compete in both. This followed some early cynicism that the competition would be aimed solely at finding new operatic voices, a view not lost on, and even justified by, the number of opera house directors waiting to sign up the winners or those who at the end were there or thereabouts.
If this monetary element did not worry anyone concerned about maintaining high operatic standards, there was more with which to take issue. In 2005, to choose a year at random, the winner was 27-year-old US soprano Nicole Cabell, a singer of bewitching if slightly self-indulgent vocal allure. She was also tall and elegant, glamorous even. She became a contender in the BBC’s asinine ‘frockwatch’, a reduction of high musical art to the level of low sartorial tittle-tattle, in which what the female contestants wore was judged to be relevant. It may have been one of the earliest examples of so-called ‘dumbing down’.
That year also saw the introduction of hi-tech as an aid to widening the registration of ‘the people’s vote’, formerly the (live) audience vote. It was the revenge of the common music-lover against experts with whom they disagreed. Korean soprano Ha-Young Lee failed to reach the finals of both the Main competition and the Song event. No one was more astounded than she to receive the Audience Prize. This episode also highlighted the jury’s sometimes quirky decisions. Among the verdicts that year, Cabell’s compatriot, the baritone Quinn Kelsey, reached the finals with a voice that was clearly still an unrefined, though powerful, instrument. But Kelsey has since improved and has performed at the New York ‘Met’ and the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, among many others. Most of the twenty winners are still in the game, though some are far less prominent than others.
Music competitions are self-referential. The American Mark Anderson was a winner of the now-defunct Newport International Piano Competition for Young Pianists, and admitted that some of his colleagues on the circuit were serial competition entrants. He himself soon made it to the famous Leeds competition, where he was placed third but won the Audience Prize. Competitions do provide audiences with several good nights out (or nights in this year) and the nervousness of performers may be less an empirical factor in the estimation of their offerings than a condition that reduces their entertainment value.
In Wales years ago fights commonly broke out at eisteddfodau as choirs conducted by ferocious baton-wielders (the batons were sometimes a couple of feet long) added colour to often dour encampments. At Swansea in 1884, a member of the losing Dowlais Harmonic Choir jumped onto the platform and reportedly accused Dr Joseph Parry of delivering “a most glaringly unjust and partial adjudication” in favour of Neath United. The accusation was probably less circumspect than the news item. Dowlais’s first National Eisteddfod win had been greeted in the town with fireworks and triumphal arches. Rivalry – as much as musical capability – ignited audience response. There would have been no firecrackers for a non-competitive performance in Dowlais of de Rille’s Martyrs of the Arena, an appropriate and popular male-choir warhorse of the time.
The paradox of competitions – that some of the most interesting musicians have never won or entered them – can be demonstrated everywhere, not least in Wales, where Llyr Williams has grown rapidly to world stature. Williams the accompanist makes a lot of singers sound ordinary. Someone once suggested that a discreetly positioned claque might be useful at St David’s Hall (and venues like it) to enliven the proceedings. The performing youngsters at Singer of the World might as well get used to their profession’s often ill-temper. If we are to have musical deaths and entrances, perhaps they should be accompanied by interventions, in-hall betting, form cards, and dress parades. In the winner’s enclosure, of course, there is room for only one. But is it the right one? And does anyone really care as long as we have been charmed and diverted?
Further information on BBC Cardiff Singer of the World here.
Nigel Jarrett is a regular Wales Arts Review contributor. He’s a former daily-newspaperman and a double prizewinner: the Rhys Davies award for short fiction and the inaugural Templar Shorts award. His first collection of stories, Funderland, was warmly reviewed in the Independent, the Guardian, and the Times. He is also the author of a poetry collection, a novel, and two other story collections. His work is included in the two-volume anthology of 20th– and 21st-century Welsh short fiction. He lives in Monmouthshire.