The singer not the song

Being an amateur musician of no great gifts, I watched the final rounds of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition over the weekend open-mouthed, and marvelled at the fabulous singing of the contestants; several of whom came from really humble backgrounds in poor countries, but who had somehow won through to this, the most prestigious of vocal tourneys.

How much work must they have put in to perfecting their glorious technique? Far more than I was ever prepared to! A wobbly dissolve takes me back to my childhood:

Fifty-five years ago, at a preparatory boarding school for little gentlemen in the English countryside, miles from home, I was being groomed as a boy soprano, to sing in competition.

The music master was Mr Brown. Young, short, with a shock of frizzy hair and a prominent Adam’s apple, he had taken me under his wing, plucked me out for stardom.

Mr Brown was a gifted musician but a terrible prima donna, with serious anger management issues.

In singing class, if Mr Brown felt he was being disrespected by pupils talking, laughing, not paying attention or singing the wrong words out of tune, he would wade into the midst of us and seize whomever he supposed to be the terrified miscreant by the hair, lifting him bodily out of his chair and dragging him, screaming, to the front, to make an example of him.

Complaints to the headmaster fell on deaf ears. Boys were there to be disciplined. Running the Empire would be far worse. One day, however, Mr Brown repeated the performance once too often, only to find himself holding, not quite a boy, but a bloodied hank of hair torn from a raw scalp.

This was the last straw. A small group of older boys – ten or twelve years old – got together to plot his downfall. One by the name of Barrington persuaded his parents to complain, almost certainly falsely, that Mr Brown had been touching his private parts in piano lessons, and Mr Brown’s teaching career was immediately toast. I have pictured him since, dwindling in obscurity in some seaside boarding house.

Even if he had touched me up, which I don’t think he ever did – he was very supportive of me and even wrote an operetta for me to star in – I imagine I would nonetheless still be alive now. I have a rather unfashionable view that paedophiles (of the self-disciplined, non-predatory kind) make the best teachers, mainly because – unlike the others – they actually like being around children.

Sadly, the demise of Mr Brown was the early hiatus in my singing career that effectively ended it. Continuity in education is extremely important, and to lose an inspirational teacher is to lose interest in the subject.

I went on to become leading Treble in my public-school choir, but disliked the music master, Mr Lester. Soon afterwards my voice descended into an uncertain register and I was cast aside like an old shoe, and did not dare sing again until my late 40s. A lot of touching of private parts went on at that expensive school in the early 1960s, that nowadays would result in excoriating headlines, multiple enquiries, savagely deterrent gaol sentences and lifelong registrations on barring lists for sexual deviants. I expect not a few High Court judges remember those days well.

The finalists in Cardiff were all clearly trained to within a millimetre of their lives and performed, to my ear, faultlessly in several languages. I have trouble just remembering English song lyrics. Probably from their early teens they would have been spotted at school, maybe in competitions; moved on to a conservatoire and worked with experts every day for years, developing their concert repertoires, until they had put in the ‘ten thousand hours’ of practice that Malcolm Gladwell writes are what it takes to make a consummate professional in any field.

The technicalities of singing go far beyond mere voice production. To enjoy a professional career, proper singers have to be completely musical, multi-instrumental;  have a deep knowledge of the composers and scores; be able to ‘tell a story’, create characters on stage and engage with their audiences. And much, much more.

But they also need to be marketable, which means nowadays they have to be telegenic, and conform to a certain physical standard of acceptability.

I have debated fiercely with myself as to whether I should mention this, because it is not a nice thing to say, but the ultimate winner of both the Song prize and the main competition, a superbly musical and vocally gifted American mezzo-soprano, was desperately unfortunate-looking: not just ‘big’, as opera singers, particularly mezzos can be, but – dare I say it –  tending to the morbidly obese: an attractive young woman, seemingly, and a winning personality, trapped within a gross carapace of flesh, sweating profusely under the lights in a bulging pink taffeta gown.

I could only picture her, quite unfairly I know, as she was far, far better than this, in a helmet with cow horns, belting out Brunnhilde from the back of a vast, brooding Beyreuth stage; and try not to think of her warbling ecstatically in some perfervid Puccini love-duet with the late, great, gargantuan figure of Luciano Pavarotti….

It’s often said that singers don’t produce their voices; rather, it is the voice that produces the singer. Sometimes voices can be unkind.