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It would be safe to assume that all the highly talented young singers we have seen over the past week or so are hoping the make an international career – this is, after all, the Mirjam Helin INTERNATIONAL Singing Competition. The contestants are obliged to present their credentials as global vocal citizens.

With the way the world of music works, singing technique and singing style (like almost everything else) is subject to a process of globalisation. Many of the competitors have studied and lived outside their home country and, thanks to the Internet and services like YouTube, all of them have been able to enjoy immediate access to recordings by singers – of both the present and the past – from everywhere in the world. The influences on their vocal identity and sense of style are many and varied.

The distinctions between national schools of singing have almost certainly become less marked over the past 25 years or so; yet it is still interesting to hear voices that, to a greater or lesser agree, typify a certain sound that is identified with a particular national culture. We all like to say that classical music is an international language, but opera and song are a special case: they involve words — and a singer’s native language will inevitably have some influence on the way he or she approaches singing as a whole and the texts in particular. It is the job of good singing teachers and language coaches to help the singer sound as authentic as possible, no matter what language he or she is singing in  … and that includes his or her own language.

It was a special pleasure in the semi-finals to hear the Canadian soprano Florie Valiquette in songs by Fauré. Not only does she have a native speaker’s ease in the French text (and singers generally find French notoriously tricky to handle), but the actual colour of her voice seems inimitably Gallic, with its airiness and charm recalling such singers of the past as Lily Pons and Mady Mesplé. I longed to hear her sing ‘Je suis Titania la blonde’ from Thomas’ Mignon – though she gave a lovely rendition of an aria by Rossini.

The timbre of another soprano, Iulia Maria Dan, also seems to belong in something of a national tradition. She is from Romania, and over the past 50 years a succession of major sopranos from that country have shared something in their vocal quality that is hard to describe, but (to my ear, at least) is undoubtedly there. If you listen to Virginia Zeani, Ileana Cotrubas, Julia Varady (born in Hungary, but trained from an early age in Romania), Nelly Miricioiu, Leontina Vaduva and Angela Gheorghiu, they all have a certain vibrancy and plangency that Iulia Maria Dan has too. That being said, Dan also reminds me a little of the late Pilar Lorengar – and she was from Spain!

Something else that goes some way to disproving my not-so-scientific theory on national vocal characteristics is the consistently strong showing at international singing competitions by contestants from South Korea, particularly in Italian repertoire. And talking of Italian repertoire – this year’s competition featured no singers from the country that gave birth to opera as an art form … There are all kinds of reasons for that, but it’s already time for me to get ready to go the Helsinki Music Centre for the main event of today: the finals of the Mirjam Helin (definitely) International Singing Competition.

Yehuda Shapiro

Yehuda Shapiro, based in London, is active as an opera critic and journalist, contributing to leading specialist magazines such as Opera and Classical Music, and to the website Sinfini. He has a special interest in the development of young vocal talent. In 2009, he reported on the Mirjam Helin Competition for Opera Now magazine and is delighted to be back in Helsinki for the 2014 edition, writing this time for Classical Music.

Twitter @YehudaShapiro

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