Baby "opera singers" & getting angry for the right reasonsEditorial
In the past, we’ve been less than ambiguous about our feelings on pre-pubescent “opera singers”. Jackie Evancho, Amira Willighagen, and now 13-year old Lauren Bretan have made their own little splashes on big-budget TV talent shows, much to the eye twitching chagrin of people within in the opera industry.
Perhaps it’s because we’re now older and/or wiser, but the latest rendering of “Nessun Dorma” by Bretan on America’s Got Talent doesn’t make us angry. After some unpacking of our reaction to her performance, which apparently blew Simon Cowell’s mind, the good news is that Bretan is in a similar position as any other aspiring singer of the classical ilk: the future of her career is in her hands, and no one else’s.
It’s doubtful that many opera singers are, on a reasonable level, threatened by the wild hysteria that tore through the studio audience of America’s Got Talent after Bretan finished her shortened, amplified performance of an aria written for a tenor. People like Mel B of Spice Girls fame, and Heidi Klum, whose closest connection to singing is through her husband, Seal, were astonished at her singing, begging the question, why is it at all meaningful that these people are impressed? These are not valuable endorsements, and no actual opera houses are going to scout Bretan and offer her roles based on her performance.
Simon Cowell, though he’s more steeped in the world of professional singers, doesn’t really know much better when it comes to honing classical voices. The current GoFundMe campaign to send Cowell to the opera is hilarious, with its layered goal to show him what the real thing looks like, and also to donate excess funds to the Met’s HD Live in Schools program. Cowell likely isn’t concerned with doing this sort of professional research, but he does have a knack for sniffing out the kind of talent that makes money.
If Cowell indeed has never heard anything like Bretan’s singing, then he has outed himself as dangerously uneducated about singers with strong careers. What’s probably true is that he has heard opera-ish singing before, but he’s totally fine with lying to an enthusiastic young singer and a huge audience of sheep. In either case, his is not a valuable endorsement either.
What’s happened through Bretan’s performance is a gross misrepresentation of opera and what it really means to pull it off. Puccini is a nice way in for opera newcomers, since the music is easy to swallow, and the sound palette isn’t far off from that of sweeping, romantic film scores. It does make us wonder what would have happened if Bretan had chosen to sing something by Handel or Mozart, which would have been healthier for her to sing, and arguably takes more varied vocal technique to pull off. It’s really likely that without the familiar strains of “Nessun Dorma” or “Vissi d’arte”, like Bretan sang for Romania’s Got Talent, the young singer might actually have come across as pretentious, rather than passionate.
America’s Got Talent, like its knock-offs, has fueled the ignorant idea that opera is a way to make your voice sound, and nothing more. The producers have discovered that a winning recipe is Young Singer with Decent Ears + Puccini + sweeping camera angles = crazed fans.
It’s one thing to wince at misinformation about being “born with a great voice” and what it means to sing opera. After all, everyone enjoyed hearing Bretan sing, right? Claudia Friedlander writes, “When operatic repertoire receives exposure at their hands and is greeted with great enthusiasm, let us regard it as a potential boon for our art form and community, warmly welcome these new enthusiasts, and seek to share with them the wonders we know await those who are willing to immerse themselves in this profound and time-honored art form.”
That sounds nice, but there’s a long and improbable journey between hearing “Nessun Dorma” on TV and attending a professional production of Der Rosenkavalier; for the most part, what will actually happen is that these “new opera fans” will hear lots of Katherine Jenkins, some Andrea Bocelli, and maybe some hits by the Three Tenors if they dig a bit deeper. None of these artists truly bridge the gap between “pretty songs” and their theatrical context (the Three Tenors, of course, did so individually, but not as a marketable trio), and a small minority of interested listeners will research their way across that gap.
If the show’s audience thinks they’re witnessing musical history, fine. They don’t know any better, and there are worse things about which to be uneducated. But Laura Bretan will now find herself courted by recording contracts by folks like Simon Cowell; that’s exciting news for her, but it’s in this girl’s potential career where the true damage could be done.
Regardless of what kind of music Bretan wants to sing, if she wants to pursue singing professionally, we hope that she gets knowledgeable, supportive training from teachers and coaches who will keep her away from Puccini for a long, long time. We can’t know how savvy she already is about the demands of a singing career, but a 13-year old is easy prey for record producers who see the latest money-making novelty in her voice.
Bretan, if you or others like you happen to stumble across this bit of writing: great singers play the long game, and they get plenty of help along the way. Bring your passion to the studios of people who care about healthy, realistic careers, and beware of the short-sighted folks who don’t get what it takes to do what you’ve started to do.