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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hitting Big Time Is Child's Play

ST. PETERSBURG -- Polina Sergeyeva is 6 years old, and already has that showbiz sparkle in her eye. "When I grow up, I want to be a singer," she says. She takes piano lessons at music school, but as a future career only the thrill of the stage will do. "No, not a pianist," she insists, "I want to be a singer."

For Polina, as for dozens of other little citizens of St. Petersburg, this weekend a life-long dream came true - a first public appearance under the spotlight. The "Little Stars" contest, which culminated on Sunday with a gala concert at the St. Petersburg Music Hall, was a chance for 60 local star-power tots to show what they could do in front of an audience of proud parents and relations.

"Little Stars" is St. Petersburg's answer to Moscow's daytime television show "Morning Stars;" and, as usual, the two cities are scornful of each other's efforts.

Sergei Savenkov, the executive director of the Petersburg competition, argues that his contest has a longer history and a slightly different concept.

"We were the first to start such a competition, and, in my opinion, we're more caring," said Savenkov, decrying the Moscow show for its rampant commercialism. "I offered to organize a competition between our winners and the winners of the 'Morning Stars' show, but they seemed reluctant to support the idea. I think we should wait until they decide to do it for the children, rather than for profit."

Shrugging off the clucking mums and their last-minute advice - "sing slowly, try not to hurry, please don't mumble" - the kids themselves seemed to be having a good time.

"I'm not worrying about winning anything," said Yura Dyachenko, the only male participant in the junior category, who did, nevertheless, walk away with a prize.

Parents do worry, however. Contrast Yura's relaxed attitude with that of Mikhail Petrosyan, who purchased a "special apparatus" for his 7-year-old daughter Anait so that she could practice her vocal technique at home.

"Of course we want her to become a popular singer," Petrosyan said. "If you had a daughter, wouldn't you want her to be a success, too? Last time Anait made it to the semifinal; this time she is a prize-winner!"

Anait rehearses every day, has piano classes at music school and regularly takes part in her school's theatrical shows. Next week she is heading to Kirov, a town between St. Petersburg and Moscow, to participate in yet another contest. The ultimate prize, however, is to appear on the magic screen in the "Morning Stars" show. Anait is not the only one with an exhausting timetable. Take, for instance, Masha Bakuta, who goes to the English-Japanese language school and attends a ballroom dancing club in between her singing lessons. In the unlikely event that she would have any spare time with which to create mischief, she also studies German at home.

But the atmosphere of the "Little Stars" contest, in spite of parental ambition, was not one of cut-throat rivalry; instead, it was more like a friendly and informal festival. This may have been good for the children's nerves, but it in fact made those of us in the audience pine for more competitive professionalism. The stage was supposed to resemble a nuclear-powered vessel called the "Cheburashka" - but we only knew this because the host of the show, dressed in a navy jacket, repeatedly told us so.

On occasion his efforts to get us into the maritime spirit were wincingly painful, as when he introduced a female member of the jury: "She's going out with the harbor master!" he cried.

The amateurish feel was compounded by the fact that some of the parents took it upon themselves to stage the children's routines and even write the songs - tasks for which their own talents were obviously insufficient. And the usual problem - money - played its part as well.

"The singing is live, but we have to use recorded accompaniments," Savenkov complained. "It would be nice to invite an orchestra and have rehearsals for two weeks, but we can't afford it."