J Mervyn Williams

J Mervyn Williams

Last updated: 16 June 2009

J Mervyn Williams was the man credited with founding the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Here are his memories.

The idea came during a Eureka moment in the bath. Before the plug was pulled, the basis of the competition was clear. The best of young classical singing talent from across the world, competing for honours in a country passionate about singing. Each would gain huge amounts of exposure throughout the globe, as the television programmes would be shown in each country sending a singer.

Why do such a thing? A state of the art concert hall was being built - St David's Hall - and Geraint Stanley Jones, BBC Wales' Head of Programmes, wanted to make the most of it.

I was invited to present my proposal to the Heads of Music of over 20 broadcasting organisations at the 1982 Prix Italia in Venice, in the hope that many would send singers to Cardiff. Only Finland and Belgium offered their support at that stage. BBC Two turned the idea down.

I was dejectedly sipping a coffee in St Mark's Square when I was approached by Humphrey Burton, until recently, Head of Music and Arts at the BBC. "It's a good idea," he said, "stick with it and I'll see what I can do." Gareth Price, Assistant Head of Programmes at BBC Wales and John Watkin, Head of Presentation weighed in to help get support and in the meantime Burton worked his magic with BBC Two. The dark clouds were lifting.

The first country to enter was Iceland. Seventeen other singers from as far afield as Hong Kong, New Zealand and Canada added their names and work began in earnest. A panel of international judges was engaged, as were the orchestras, conductors, accompanists and TV presenters. Hotels were booked and all the paraphernalia of television put in place. The music library worked wonders, and a schedule was put in place that matched a British Rail timetable.

Guiding every move was my assistant, Anna Williams. She and her team ensured that the singers became a warm bonded group, and all these years later that spirit still pervades the competition, with Anna still weaving her spell.

But, there were some things even Anna couldn't arrange. The summer of 1983 was sweltering. Who would want to sit indoors listening to unknown singers? Tickets were not selling - though by the final they would be like gold dust. The local press weighed in with great support - even recommending the comfort of air conditioning in the hall.

Then, the moment of truth. On that first night, the audience heard the singer who would become the first winner of the competition. It seemed fitting that she came from the country which had been the first to support the event - Finland. Her name - Karita Mattila.

J Mervyn Williams was Head of Music at BBC Wales in the early 1980s. He died on 29 October 2009.

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