Choosing a winner

Angela Marambio, winner of the 2003 Audience Prize (photo: Brian Tarr)

Suggestions from Graeme Kay on what to look for when deciding who to vote for in the Audience Prize.

Well, folks: it's make-your-mind-up time!

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World isn't, of course, a cheesy Opportunity Knocks-style show for classical singers. It makes no difference if you're in the audience in St David's Hall, a television viewer, a radio listener, or a member of the distinguished panel of judges at the end of the day you have to decide who you think is simply the best performer.

So I'm a judge now. What should I be looking for?

At this level of international competition, you should be able to take for granted that the singers should have well-developed vocal techniques: that's all the basic things such as knowing the notes and being able to sing them, steadiness of pitch, tone quality, breath control and facility with language. Here are some areas of refinement which will help mark out the exceptional performer:

  • Quality of voice: is the sound easy on the ear, comfortable to listen to? Does it appeal?
  • Musicality: is the singer responding not just to the words and music, but to the conductor and the orchestral musicians? Are they all in the performance together?
  • Articulation of words: not only must the words be correctly pronounced (most singers will be performing in a variety of non-native languages) but they must be intelligible and give a sense of the meaning, even when the language is unfamiliar to the listener.
  • Artistic interpretation: is the singer conveying the underlying meaning of the words and music, perhaps using body language to 'act' the part (bearing in mind that gesture can be distracting - you can do plenty of acting with the voice alone).
  • Stage presence and deportment: the best performers are physically at ease with themselves, with the audience, and with the music. You should be able to sense that.

That's a lot to take in - is there a short cut?

Yes. The essence of all this is communication. The successful performer is the one who communicates most; it's about being able to feel a musical personality across the footlights. Great performers don't need footlights - they light up a space with their gifts and skills.

How can I judge the interpretation if I don't know what it's all about? The subtitles are too small to read on the web.

Think about communication: it's a hard fact of life that singers have to perform in front of audiences who haven't usually had the time to read up on every song - a recital might have 30 items in it. So communication is everything. It's perfectly possible to sit through a play in a foreign language and get something out of it - it's how it's performed that will convey meaning as much as the words.

If the international jury has seen fit to choose the five finalists, who am I to disagree?

Well, the international jury doesn't always get it right! Ultimately, the finalists are chosen by means of an aggregate score which is kept for all of the preliminary concerts. That's why it's possible to be a winner on your night but not go through to the final.

Of course, the judgements which inform those scores are subjective. Disagreement is fundamental to good criticism, so finding yourself at odds with the decisions isn't so surprising; it doesn't invalidate your view.

How can I remember what someone was like when it's five days since I heard them?

With so many performances to take into account, it's easy to forget what you thought of each of them. The only way I can keep track is by making notes on each singer as I hear them. There will also be video clips on the website so that you can watch part of the performances again.

When compiling your notes, my tip is to finish with a mark on a scale of one to 10; but use a pencil - as the competition progresses you may find that the standard varies from round to round and that you have to re-contextualise your mark in the light of later performances.

Isn't it a completely different experience to hear someone performing live?

Yes, but there are swings and roundabouts in this. When you're a member of the audience, you have a very vivid impression of how the performers interact with the space; if they generate electricity, you'll feel it. However, the live audience only has a wide angle view; on TV, close-ups give you more of a sense of how the singers physically articulate their interpretation; on radio, the sound is likely to be closer in to the voice, although the engineers will be doing everything they can to balance the sound as if the listeners at home are actually in the hall.

How much notice should I take of the experts, like you?

People get to be 'experts' because they have professional involvement in singing or because, like me, they've simply devoted the larger part of their lives to listening to singers, attending performances (possibly even performing a bit) and learning about the subject, than most people have time to do in their own lives. Being a critic is about being able to draw on experience and make comparisons; and that's something that everyone can do for themselves.

They're all so good, it's so confusing. Should I just vote for someone I fancy?

Do you mean 'fancy' in terms of, well, fancy?

Goodness, I don't mean sexually... or do I? I remember Dmitri...

You're actually talking about chemistry, and that's nothing to be embarrassed about. Put it this way: there is a member of the front-of-house staff at St David's Hall; she doesn't know anything about music but she's managed to pick the winner on the last three occasions she's been on duty at the final. "I just listen, and if the singing gets to my heart, and I feel moved," she says, "I know that's the winner."

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