Festival of Voice:  a brilliant new international event

We’re ridiculously excited about the Festival of Voice, a new biennial international arts event that’s happening in Cardiff in early June. 

It takes the simplest of instruments – the human voice – and celebrates it in all its gloriously diverse forms, featuring global stars from all shades of the musical spectrum, bold new commissions, rising stars, and venerable legends. (For a nice little film about the whole ethos, look here.)  

It’s the first festival of its kind in the UK, and the Welsh capital is the perfect place for it to happen. We’ve got a reputation as ‘land of song’ which, like all good clichés, has more than a grain of truth. Singing is a perfectly normal activity here. It’s not seen as an unusual or artsy thing to do – it’s more like kicking a ball around. It’s just something we do.

The cross-genre thing is important, too. We’re not hung up categories. If someone’s good, they’re good. So at the Festival you’ll get opera alongside grime, musical theatre alongside rock, cabaret alongside gospel and swing alongside choral music. The only thing in common is that they’re all top-quality. 

As Rufus Wainwright says, “Historically [Wales has] always been a haven for great singing and great music centred around the human voice. The Welsh audience is extremely versatile and therefore one of the best audiences, because they always want something new and interesting.”

There’s a lot of home-grown Welsh talent on display, and plenty of community events, but they share equal billing with international stars. You’ll already know about Mr Wainwright, along with Van Morrison, Bryn Terfel, Candi Staton, John Cale and Welsh National Opera. But here are just six suggestions that (we hope) will open your ears to wonderful new experiences:

La Voix Humaine

3-11 June, Penarth

Francis Poulenc based his mini-opera on a play by Jean Cocteau, creating probably the most intimate, and emotionally charged, solo piece ever written:  a lone woman, on the phone to her lover, her life unravelling. What makes this production even more intense is that it takes place in an apartment in Penarth, so each audience of just 35 people will share the same small space as soprano Claire Booth. It’ll be extraordinary. 

Penarth South Wales

Penarth, South Wales

The Last Mermaid

4-12 June, Wales Millennium Centre

Charlotte Church is a one-woman embodiment of the Festival’s bashing down of barriers between musical genres. She’s been both an angelic operatic schoolgirl and pop princess – not to mention a purveyor of fearless (and often scathingly funny) opinions. So her reboot of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is shaping up to be fascinating: great family entertainment, yes, but with a powerful message. She said: “It is not musical theatre, it’s not really an opera, it has lots of contemporary classical elements and electronica. I have never seen anything like we’re trying to do.”

The Last Mermaid

Charlotte Church in The Last Mermaid

 by Festival of Voice

Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares

10 June, Llandaff Cathedral

We admit, if you’ve never heard of Bulgarian choral singing, and its full-blooded ‘open-throat’ style, then this night at Llandaff Cathedral sounds like a tough sell. And yet the sheer power and spine-tingling beauty of the harmonies… no, listen for yourself here. If it’s not your thing, fair enough. But we think you’ll be hooked long before it reaches that brilliant, shining augmented chord at the end.

John Grant + Meilyr Jones

9 June, Wales Millennium Centre 

Great baritone voices are a rarity in pop, as is the intelligence and sheer humanity that flows through singer-songwriter John Grant’s work. Who says catchy can’t be clever? The same could be said of local boy (well, Aberystwyth) Meilyr Jones, whose recent solo album 2013 got a rapturous reception from the critics. Two superb, convention-defying artists for the price of one. Bargain.  

Slowly Rolling Camera

9 June, Chapter Arts Centre

Portishead and Massive Attack are two of the names thrown up in the context of Slowly Rolling Camera, but this Cardiff four-piece inhabit a soundscape that is very much their own. It has elements of trip hop, jazz, soul and electronic music, but it’s the fine quality of the musicianship that really brings everything together.

Chapter Arts Center

Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff

Femi Kuti + Mbongwana Star

9 June, St David's Hall

The late, great Fela Kuti more or less invented Afrobeat in the politically-charged crucible of 1960s Nigeria, and his son Femi continues to lead from the front (literally, given his highly driven stage presence). Much of the same drive for social justice underpins Mbongwana Star, a Congolese seven-piece with a tough, almost punky edge.