Cardiff Singer of the World: 'Stage talent shop window'

Karita Mattila   There were 18 singers in the competition's first year including the legendary Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who went on to win

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Since the inaugural event in 1983, the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World trophy has become one of the most sought-after prizes in classical music.

The competition stemmed from a "Eureka!" moment in the bath, according to the man credited with founding Cardiff Singer, J Mervyn Williams.

The former BBC Wales head of music seized the opportunity to combine the country's musical reputation with the construction of a new concert venue in the Welsh capital, St David's Hall, for a TV programme that would supercharge the careers of dozens of young classical singers over three decades.

Start Quote

It's about how they handle the pressure, about how they manage to stand on a stage and deliver the goods”

End Quote Steph Power, classical music critic Wales Arts Review

Geraint Stanley Jones was director of BBC Cymru Wales in the early 1980s and worked with Mr Williams to devise and establish the competition.

"One morning he came to see me and said 'Singer of the World!' Before long, we added 'Cardiff.'

"We felt we had to bring 'Cardiff' into it, not only for Cardiff's sake but also for our [BBC Wales's] sake to hold on to it for future years.

"And so it was created, with the help of Welsh National Opera and [the then] Cardiff City Council," he said.

Mr Williams died in 2009, but his assistant in 1983, Anna Williams, has been with the competition for 30 years and is now its organiser.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa presents the Cardiff Singer of the World trophy to 2011 winner Valentina Nafornita Dame Kiri Te Kanawa presents the Cardiff Singer of the World trophy to 2011 winner Valentina Nafornita

She said: "The organisation of the event starts immediately after the last one has finished.

"We start by contacting opera houses and conservatoires from all around the world, and ask them to recommend singers to audition for the competition.

"Once the finalists are chosen, you have to get all of their music, and prepare their information for the press department. A lot of paperwork has to come in.

"There are four music librarians involved in various ways with the competition, and they pull together more than 200 pieces of music in order that the event can take place."

Guang Yang, 1997 Chinese mezzo-soprano Guang Yang, singing with a professional orchestra for the first time, won in 1997

There have been several vintage Cardiff Singers, according to aficionados.

These include the discovery of Finnish soprano Karita Mattila who won the inaugural competition in 1983, and the triumph of Chinese mezzo-soprano Guang Yang in 1997 who charmed the audience and jury as she sang with a professional orchestra for the first time.

The competition takes place every two years, and in 2011 it was won by Valentina NaforniĊ£a from Moldova.

Steph Power, a classical music critic and a deputy editor of the online arts journal Wales Arts Review, told BBC Wales: "I think 2011 was generally considered to be a vintage year, we'll have to wait and see what happens in this 30th anniversary year.

"For me as a critic it's about appreciating what each singer brings to the competition in that moment - a combination of musicianship, artistry, vocal skill.

"All these singers are absolutely top notch - there is not a single question of a lack of technique, for instance.

"It's about how they handle the pressure, about how they manage to stand on a stage and deliver the goods."

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is a member of the jury who will select this year's winner, and has been patron of the competition since 2011.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa says the contest is a 'wonderful shop window' for singers

She said: "It's a wonderful shop window for the new up-and-coming international singer.

"It gives them great exposure very quickly. So if there's somebody out there who would like to employ them, take them on, train them or put them in a young people's programme, this is the time to do it.

"It's not just one - they are all very good, and all have possibly got a place in the world of classical music.

"It's not just the winner who is going to get the work."

Each year an entry from Wales has been determined by the winner of the Welsh Singers competition, and this year the baritone Gary Griffiths from Pembrey was selected.

He was born in 1983, the year that BBC Cardiff Singer of the World first took place.

He said: "The competition has changed massively over the years. For instance the biggest thing that's changed is that now there is double the amount of repertoire than there was in the 1980s.

"I think the stakes are slightly higher, and just to be in the competition is reward enough, and the fact that I get that exposure, and get the opportunities with the orchestra.

"Winning is a massive bonus, but it really is the old saying of taking part that counts."

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2013 can be followed all this week on BBC Four, BBC Two Wales, BBC Radio Wales and BBC Radio Cymru - the final takes place on Sunday 23 June.

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