Children as the newest opera stars?

I’m hesitant to post much about this, because it usually tends to be misunderstood.  I confess that I watch a lot of those America’s Got Talent type of shows.  It’s actually an easy way to practice my languages when I watch the shows in different countries.  So I’ve become very familiar with the “child operatic soprano” performance.  Actually, I should say right now that I realize it’s NOT the children themselves who are saying they’re singing opera, it’s the adults promoting and managing them, and the public which generally doesn’t hear a difference between opera, art song, and classical crossover. But these types of performances tend to follow a typical format. It’s usually someone 13 or under singing “O Mio Babbino Caro” “Nessun Dorma” “Pie Jesu” or “Ave Maria.”  It seems like this really took off when Jackie Evancho sang on America’s Got Talent.  This past year on “Holland’s Got Talent” they had two of these child singers, Amira Willighagen and Sofia Asgari

When these singers get mentioned, people tend to fall into two camps.  One group thinks they’re very talented, have beautiful voices, and should be promoted.  The other group thinks they’re too young for the music they’re singing, and probably a lot of people fall in between.  Part of me thinks that if you’re going to sing an aria, you open yourself up to being assessed based on standards used for that type of music, regardless of age.  At the same time, I don’t think that’s very fair.  I get the impression that the music is being chosen more based off of someone else who sang it first, and not based off of what a teacher suggested.  I also don’t agree with some of those criticizing the singers by saying they aren’t using their “real” voices.  I can tell you I had a similar sound to Jackie Evancho when I was that age, and my voice always did remain darker.  Now that I fixed the bad habits (and had some time to get a little older!) the color really comes out, and this time with volume as well.  There may be a certain degree of mimicry involved, but I wouldn’t go so far to say that they aren’t using their real voices.  Maybe it’s just a reaction from having heard plenty of people say that about my voice that I see a need to defend Jackie here! 

Now, I do want to make it clear that I really think these girls have a lot of talent and potential.  There are some very beautiful qualities in their tone (Evancho), range (Asgari), and projection (Willighagen).  Those are very good qualities to have, and could be developed further if they wanted to sing classically.  Having potential and talent though does not make a singer a child prodigy.  When a listener is given such a limited range of music to hear, it’s really hard to say how well someone’s voice is developed.  As an aside, I’ve sung a lot of English choral music, which has so many solo lines specifically written with this age group in mind (nevermind that I can’t sing any of them because mezzos weren’t exactly the favored voice in that tradition, but that’s a completely different post!).  From listening (and I admit I tend to look up Jackie Evancho a lot on Youtube because I love hearing young voices develop), I have a hard time picturing these singers performing “O For the Wings of a Dove” or the Stanford “Magnificat in G.”  It’s not that they don’t possess the range or the vocal quality, but the breath support and ability to navigate easily through registers is not there yet (and that’s okay, there’s plenty of time to develop it).  I will say that one particular singer is able to do this pretty well.  Patricia Janeckova has demonstrated an ability to sing in a very controlled way.  This particular piece is seemingly very simple (just sung on a vowel), but she phrases it beautifully, and as a result it highlights her voice and shows that she doesn’t sound like most singers that age.  I will say I don’t think she’s ready for Song to the Moon.  She has a beautiful voice, but it doesn’t have the tonal range required to sing it.  Instead of highlighting the parts of her voice that really make her stand out as a child singer, it makes her sound pretty “ordinary.”  I really don’t think it’s a “bad” performance, and I wouldn’t consider any of the child singer performances “bad.”  They all tend to have the correct pitch, come in at the right times, and it’s clear they’re paying attention to phrasing.  But I wouldn’t say most of the music really shows off their abilities. 

Part of me really dislikes the idea of child prodigy vocalists.  Unlike a violinist or pianist, the voice has to wait until it matures before it really becomes nice.  It’s very interesting to listen to recordings of singers when they first enter voice programs and when they graduate from programs.  There are some nice changes that take place between 18 and 21, and as beautiful as the 18 year old voice may be, it will not be comparable to that same voice a few years later with proper training.  Personally, I would say my own voice didn’t start to sound pleasant to listen to until around 25.  I’ll also add that it’s frustrating when the sopranos seem to be developing faster, but certain voice types just need more time to develop and settle.  So I think that with child vocalists, the “prodigy” aspect has to cover the technical aspects (how well they can navigate the passagio, total range, ability to blend registers, etc.) instead of purely listening to the voice itself. 

Perhaps the thing that bothers me most about this obsession with child singers is the amount of pressure placed on them to keep their voices.  Again, the voice does not stay the same, and what you sound like at 13 will be different from how you sound at 23.  Many times when I read about this subject, a lot of people will say that they hope the singers don’t turn into “typical” opera singers, or that they hope they keep their “soprano voices.”  I think this encourages girls who I think tend to not have teachers guiding them to force their voices into something else.  Just because somebody can sing very high and light as a child doesn’t mean they will keep that same range or quality as an adult.  Considering deeper voiced females aren’t exactly popular in the classical crossover genre, I wonder if they would fall out of popularity should one of them develop that type of voice.  I also wonder if they would have even become so popular had they been adults instead of children who “sounded” like adults, or if they would have sung music written more appropriately for children. 

If you made it through this exceptionally long post, I do want to emphasize that I’m actually happy I get more singers to check out every so often.  I find it exciting to listen to young voices come into their own, which is why I hope they continue to sing for many years to come.  If they care for their voices properly, and (try to!) patiently wait, they may very well be able to sing some gorgeous music and able to perform it beautifully.  So I hope they continue to sing, study, and learn.    

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