What to wear

Edyta Kulczak from Poland (Photo: Brian Tarr)

Frockwatch's very own Maggi Willis (aka Stage Door Jeannie) advises on how to look fabulous on stage.

See Maggi's Frockwatch verdicts from the 2009 competition.

According to those who study such things, 83% of a presentation's success is determined by what is seen, not heard.

Of course for those of us attending, even judging, singing competitions that figure must be lower but it does bring home the importance of presentation onstage. So what does it take to make a visual mark on judges and audience?

What to wear

The most obvious impact is what is worn. Cardiff competitors can call on the support of Eric Doughney, the competition's costume designer and his team. They are the best support team you could hope for - zips are checked, hems inspected, creases steamed away.

Eric himself advises competitors beforehand on the best outfits for television - avoid bare shoulders, avoid black and white (for the women, of course), evening dress for concerts, appropriate 'smart casual' for other occasions.

So - you fling open the wardrobe and what do you chose? For men the choice is relatively easy - tails or a more contemporary formal look. The plus for totally traditional tails is that the tailoring helps your posture and therefore your breathing. And tails are a necessary investment, appropriate for most occasions. The disadvantage can be its extreme formality, possibly representing the 'inaccessibility' that opera is frequently accused of.

The alternative is a more relaxed approach - a long black jacket with a nehru collar perhaps, formal but not traditional. This gives an opportunity to personalise the outfit. Tommi Hakala - the 2005 winner - wore a black cord tie, held in place by a silver clasp with traditional Finnish emblems.

It is possible to personalise tails as Leigh Melrose showed in 2001. He added not only a beautiful waistcoat but also a bright red satin lining to the jacket. Only he knew it was there - the ultimate confidence-booster.

Women's outfits are much more of a minefield. First, be really clear what suits your figure. A V-neck flatters an above-average sized bosom, bracelet-length sleeves can be more attractive than elbow- or wrist-length.

Second - go to a theatrical costumier. They understand what colours and fabrics work well on stage and what restrictions singing puts on your outfit. An off-the-peg posh frock is a false economy! Janet Baker, not a singer given to an excess of diva vanity, despatched her husband to the back of the hall to check the impact the colour and shape a new dress would have.

Third - what are you singing? If it's a Voice from Heaven, an emotionally-tortured nun or a lovelorn virgin, forget the cleavage. When you are more established in your repertoire, you might find your equivalent designer. Cecilia Bartoli wears Vivienne Westwood - an authority in cutting and fabric as well as an inspirational designer. Both women are 18th century specialists, so what you see is always at one with what you hear.

Fourth - safety first, the world is full of opportunities for embarrassment. Beware of things that could catch on an orchestra member as you walk on stage. If you must have a shawl, be sure it stays in place or can be used to enhance your performance. Fiddling with it implies nerves. Leather-soled shoes must be 'worn-in', given rubber soles or have the cheese grater applied. Jewellery - is it appropriate, is it too much? Too much and 'Lovelorn Nun' becomes 'Christmas Tree'.

Fifth - look well-groomed. Clean hair, away from the face. Clean hands and nails. Shoes polished and repaired - remember that many of your audience are at shoe level.

How to communicate

Beyond the outfit, there is another layer of presentation which is easy to get wrong. Singing is communication - and we all know that what we say or sing can be ruined by a single out-of-place gesture.

The audience is an important partner in this communication though they may seem quite scary. The Cardiff audience is extremely supportive of young singers, but that takes nothing away from the need for good stage manners.

  • Walk onto stage as if you are greeting a roomful of friends - open, confident, calm.
  • Look around, embracing the hall with a friendly smile.
  • Be interested in the orchestra or accompanist and remember to thank them at the end.
  • Balance the amount of movement you will need to bring the performance to life - there's something between total immobility and a semaphore/grimace combo that will be right for you and your repertoire.
  • Acknowledge applause, not as Lady Billows or Uriah Heep but as if you are among friends.
  • Leave the stage with style, not running nor dragging your feet to milk applause. Just like the perfect guest - having shared something special, you know exactly when to leave.

These days singers are as likely to be judged on their appearance as on their musical and acting abilities. 'Being yourself' requires rehearsal too, perhaps it's the biggest part you play. The truth is that when you've got it right, everyone will praise your 'naturalness' and concentrate on your singing!

Here are some of my favourite presentation tricks:

  • Pavarotti's hankie - in fact his whole repertoire of gestures that tell the audience it's OK to dissolve into rapturous applause.
  • Sarah Walker's Last Night of Proms dress - the moment when she pulled open a fold in her ivory dress to reveal a huge Union Jack. It spawned many imitations before steps were taken to make the Last Night a little less boisterous.
  • John Tomlinson's stride - there's always a moment when he struts purposefully across the stage and you know that Wotan/Baron Ochs/whoever is going to take control. He just forces you to look at him.
  • Bryn's Dragon - for a time Bryn Terfel rarely seemed to appear without his Welsh flag. It even appeared over his Wotan costume at the curtain call of Die Walküre at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Keep in touch

Musical score

Email newsletter

Sign up for the latest Cardiff Singer news and information.

BBC Wales Music

Bryn Terfel

Classical and opera

Read about some of the greatest singers from Wales.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.