[As in the rest of this series, all non-bracketed text is by this blog's correspondent on the scene, not by me --JSU]
The BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition was launched in 1983, created primarily by the BBC and specifically by BBC Wales, one of the regional programming services of that company. You can find details of the genesis on the home site.
The basic premise was that every two years, twenty young singers, between 18 and 32 years of age, would compete in front of a distinguished panel of jurists, for an international level prize which would lead to engagements with the UK's major orchestras and opera companies, and open doors, via important agents, to an international career. That they hit the target right off the mark was evident from the fact that the very first winner of the prize was Karita Mattila.
Because it was a BBC-inspired event means that there has always been television coverage. There was more in the early years, when we only had BBC 1 and 2, on analogue network TV. Once the digital channels came along, regrettably, the TV coverage declined, and shifted predominantly to BBC 4, with only the final shown live on BBC 2 in the early evening. Nevertheless, the standard of singing has rarely declined. Almost all of the candidates have already begun their professional careers, and many have won competitions at national level in the year or two before appearing in Cardiff, so the standard is very high.
Back in '83, each candidate was required to present a 20-odd minute programme, of just about anything they wanted, with the focus on opera, but song was certainly not neglected, and singers were expected to demonstrate versatility in terms of repertory. However, there were still hiccups in the system. In 1987, the prize was won by Valeria Esposito, in the face of performances from both Soile Isokoski and Iris Vermilion, and that was surely the most bizarre result the competition has ever produced. Although I do not know the behind-the-scenes stories, I'm sure that the fall-out from that year was very considerable, and the competition has never again, to my knowledge, transgressed so egregiously as that year.
That the system had become flexible became evident in 1989. This was the year of the Battle of the Baritones. Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Bryn Terfel, head to head. For those of us watching it, it was an unforgettable occasion. There was no question that these two singers were head and shoulders above the rest of the competition, and this was in a year that included Monica Groop and Hillevi Martinpelto. In the end, Hvorostovsky won, but Terfel was awarded a hitherto unknown prize, the Lieder Prize, and as a result of that, the competition developed a second string, (now known as the Rosenblatt Song Prize) which is non-mandatory, but for which most of the contenders also present themselves.
Another change that has happened over the years was the composition of the actual final concert. Previously, the winner of each individual round automatically went forward to the final. More recently, the singers in the final are the five singers judged the best overall by the panel of adjudicators, regardless of their status in individual rounds. This has been an amendment that I, at least, welcomed warmly, because the luck of the draw can sometimes be deucedly unlucky, and place two outstanding singers in the same evening.
What we have seen in Cardiff has been the very best of the new generations. While the winner is always of particular interest, sometimes they are not quite ready for a full-scale career. Esposito, barely 20 at the time if I recall correctly, has probably been the biggest mistake in that regard. On the other hand, the 2007 winner, the Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang, who was only 23 at the time, has already made it to the stage of the Met, and I fully expect to see him all over the world within the next decade. Often finalists, rather than winners, have made the greatest breakthroughs. Franz Hawlata, John Relyea and Nina Stemme have all been very impressive runners-up. Elina Garanca lost out to Marius Brenciu in 2001; I know I am not the only person to think that she may have just lost out because there had been a string of female winners just before her, and certainly both of them have made their mark since. The selection has been wide-spread; Nicole Cabell for the US, Tommi Hakala for Finland, Anja Harteros for Germany and Katerina Karneus for Norway, for the main prize; Ailish Tynan for Ireland, Christopher Maltman and Elizabeth Watts for England, in separate years, Jan Martinik for the Czech Republic for the Song Prize. All names that any lover of voices will know by now, and appreciate in their distinctive ways.
I'm looking forward to this. For nearly thirty years I have followed this competition via television and radio, and I cannot begin to say how excited I am to be able to attend in person. I have opted out of attending the Song Prize rounds, there is such a thing as overload, although I will be attending the Final. But I know that of the twenty young singers competing in Cardiff this week, I will be hearing most, if not all of them, on the radio and in recordings, all over the world, in the years to come.