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Jessica Duchen
Wednesday 28th April 2010
After You've Tweeted, Warble

After the fiasco of Popstar to Operastar, the BBC is having a go at finding an opera star of the future. Dame Kiri leads the procedings and the winner gets to sing at Proms in the Park and to take a three-week course at the Solti Te Kanawa Academy in Italy. It is called, of course, The Kiri Prize.

It still seems extraordinary that the public by and large thinks operatic singing can happen by magic. It doesn't. It takes years of hard work and careful voice management and...well, it's likely you know this already because you're reading my blog, but why Radio2 has to grab a gimmick like this is mystifying, because the existing operatic and vocal competitions are already finding new stars all the time. Like this one:

061211 Njabulo Madlala

The Kathleen Ferrier Awards at the Wigmore Hall are just over and the winner is the South African baritone Njabulo Madlala (above). Hilary Finch was seriously impressed by him: read her review here. Meanwhile Placido Domingo's Operalia is running at the moment - this is the contest that helped to find Villazon, amongst others. Final is on 2 May. Cardiff Singer of the World found Hvorostovsky and Terfel in the same year, and has also kick-started the careers of Inger Dam Jensen, Karita Mattila and more recently Elizabeth Watts. 

There are plenty of wonderful young singers in the world just waiting for a chance to be heard. But I'm not convinced that The Kiri Prize is necessarily a good way discover them. Just imagine the pressure to go crossover on the spot. Any successful youngster in Britain is almost expected to throw themselves instantly over the waterfall that is our seemingly insatiable appetite for the downmarket and the naff. And from that position it's almost impossible to move anywhere but further downmarket: what chance now that the classical market will ever accept Katherine Jenkins as a true operatic mezzo? But as Madlala has just proved - and he comes from a South African township - the best route is always up.

[UPDATE, 3 MAY: On the other hand...Please have a look at the comment below from 'Anon', who is participating in the contest. His/her experience suggests that it is not as downmarket as the outward aspect might lead us to believe - good news indeed.]

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Jessica Duchen
May 4th, 2010
10:05 AM
Thanks for that insight, "Anon" - it's very good to hear this and I'm glad that you are finding it such a positive experience. Of course there is always room for high-quality encouragement of real talent - the danger is that the populist media too often push things in a different direction. If that's not the case this time: great! Very best of luck with it.

May 2nd, 2010
10:05 AM
I have been a part of this competition. Not at all has it been a crossover competition or any pressure to do anything but classical singing. The competition is being ran by credible classical conductors, vocal tutors and of course, Dame Kiri. The people that are applying for the competition are classical singers in training at the UKs top conservatoires much like the people that enter other singing competitions such as Operalia, or the Tauber or the Ferrier. What is the problem with simply adding another competition to the selection, a competition in which singers can receive excellent coachings on arias they are working on with masters of the OPERATIC profession. The works people are performing are nothing like crossover, in fact, 2 operatic arias have to prepared and performed and there have been many rounds and selection processes to ensure that finalists are credible classical singers in training, not young singers wishing to follow a crossover route. Fact. We should be glad that operatic masters are reaching out to young people and attempting to guide and mould them. Even if singers do not get far into the competition, they still receive a masterclass with Dame Kiri in which they work on an aria. Rewarding all round, and similar training to something they would receive at a conservatoire, so maybe people should think about what actually goes on in the competition and the singers that apply before criticising. The competition is credible and very rewarding/educational for young operatic singers, who need every ounce of training possible in a very competitive career.

April 29th, 2010
2:04 PM
I'm afraid I can't see much wrong with this. Dame Kiri is in no need of a "boost", career or otherwise. Nor will she be inviting trashy singers to the Solti Te Kanawa Academy.

Brendan Carroll
April 28th, 2010
9:04 AM
I agree 100% Jessica. Of course, the very fact that this contest is positioned on Radio 2 rather than Radio 3 indicates the kind of popular "Charlotte Church" market being aimed for. Terry Wogan comperes Proms in the Park! Nuff said! As for Dame Kiri - she no doubt wants a career boost and having seen what a high profile and the acres of press and TV interview opportunities the ailing Villazon got from his awful ITV outing, she thought "I want some of that! After all I should be 'The People's Soprano' not bloody Kathrine Jenkins!" Hence this pointless exercise bearing her name. Maybe I am being a terrible old cynic of course - but as Tenessee Williams once said, "Cynicism is only an unpleasant way of telling the truth".

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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