On Child Singing Prodigies By a Former Nine Year Old "Opera Singer"

The television series America's Got Talent has produced yet another child opera singer for audiences to be amazed by. She is 13 years old, has a beautiful voice, which sounds far more mature than most singers her age, and she is also charming and seems very sweet. A few years back there was Jackie Evancho, and before her a line of other singers beginning with Charlotte Church.

When I was nine years old my parents put me into voice lessons because I adored performing, but was belting out Broadway show tunes in an Ethel Merman-esque way. A young performing friend of mine developed vocal nodules from this same style of singing, and my parents, being smart, thought I would do well with some lessons. They found a local teacher who had sung opera, operetta and musical theater, and who was known around town to be very good. However, she did not teach children. She thought children's voices should wait until they matured to be trained. Somehow, my dad convinced her that I would take it seriously, and she agreed with the understanding that she wasn't going to teach me to belt any longer - she was going to teach me proper technique and only allow me to sing things appropriate for my age. How we got so lucky to stumble upon such a wise woman I will never know (Her name is Thelma Ahner she's still teaching in Santa Rosa, CA). After she taught me how to use my breath and how to sing in my head voice, and I discovered the full range of the human vocal instrument, I was hooked. She would assign me Deanna Durbin songs, and things like Purcell and some Italian art songs occasionally. I didn't sing any arias until I got into my early teens, when I had been taking lessons every week for 4 years, and then we began with those 24 Italian Songs and Arias known to all students of classical voice, as well as some Mozart and Rossini, always under supervision. I was very much like a lot of these opera kids - it was definitely shocking and impressive what I could do with my voice at a young age, but it was always under the intense supervision and scrutiny of someone who was very focused on keeping me from doing any damage. I wasn't mimicking a sound either - this was my real sound that came from seriously studying voice - albeit carefully - from a young age, which I believe is possible.

There was no America's Got Talent when I was a kid, but you can bet if there was I would have forced my parents to let me audition. A lot of people worry that parents are pushing their kids into things like this, and sometimes that may be the case, but for me I would have given my left big toe to be able to audition for a TV show. I did, in fact, audition for Star Search once, but it didn't even occur to me to sing an opera aria for the audition. I think I sang "Somewhere Out There" and got the feedback "sounds too operatic" and was not chosen. Had I had the idea to sing some Puccini aria (as I did in high school when I started winning talent competitions) who knows? Maybe I could have pre-empted Charlotte Church. However, had I become a famous kid singing Puccini, it's almost certain I would not have ended up with a career as an actual opera singer as an adult. I can't think of any of these young singers who became famous and went on to have operatic careers, or even singing careers into adulthood.

There are two issues most professional adult classical singers have with these child opera singers. First of all, they tend to be worried for the vocal health of the kids who are singing opera, especially the ones who are repeatedly asked to sing Puccini arias like Nessun Dorma, which is technically quite a heavy aria, written for a hefty tenor voice. It's funny because singing with a voice that is classically trained is in some ways the safest way to protect one's instrument, but because opera is written to be sung without amplification and over an orchestra it can be an extremely taxing type of singing when not carefully monitored. The reason adult opera singers are able to use their voices in a way that demonstrates the extremes of what a voice is capable of is because they study and practice for years, with fully developed adult musculature, and build up over time to heavier and heavier repertoire. In the same way that athletes build their muscles up over time, opera singers must build and develop those muscles to be able to sing in a way that is both thrilling to others and healthy for themselves. However, unlike certain muscles that can be trained for many hours per day even at a young age (like ice skaters or gymnasts) those two tiny vocal folds that control all that noise are very delicate and cannot become strong and flexible quickly - they must be built up very slowly over years of study and practice or they can easily acquire a debilitating injury. Professional teachers and singers worry that these young children and teens are singing in a way that, if continued, could harm these children's voices irreparably, and prevent them from enjoying singing into adulthood. As I said above, I believe it is possible to sing in a healthy classical style from a young age, but one thing that many of these kids have in common that can lead to problems is something called over-darkening, wherein they create a sound that is more adult by forcefully depressing their larynx. Over time, this can cause a voice not to just sound mature, but to sound old because instead of a natural vibrato, the voice develops a deep wobble.

The second issue many professionals have with these child opera singers is the feeling that while the wider public seems to have such a fascination with these kids singing opera, they don't share that interest in the adults who sing the same repertoire professionally and in context. Of course, in one sense, perhaps people are just reacting to the "wow" factor of seeing an incongruous voice come out of an angelic face. But the reason the children ARE impressive is that they are using a large range of notes, have the ability to make dynamic contrasts (more than pop singers who sing in a more limited spoken voice range) and because the music they are singing is powerful and exciting - even out of context and diced to bits for the sake of television brevity. My reaction is always - if you think THIS is amazing - take a look at THIS! And I want to show them a video of someone like Jonas Kaufmann singing Nessun Dorma, in the context of the actual opera or at least with subtitles so they can see why it's totally a bizarre aria for a little girl to sing. Not only does Kaufmann deliver power and beauty, but also deeply felt emotion. While opera professionals may be worried for the vocal health of these young people, we mostly just want to show all of the people sharing the videos of these little kids a video of a powerful professional opera singer and say "You should just let yourself be open to this if you like that kid because this is like drinking a fine wine once it's been aged! Even more delicious and nuanced!"

I always feel a little bit conflicted about any crossover type singer - that is a singer who chooses to sing operatic repertoire despite not being truly a trained professional - and who still garners a great deal of popularity. On the one hand, I want people to hear opera arias and know their power. On the other hand, the versions that the non-trained singers are presenting, whether children or adults, give an incorrect impression of what is truly possible. Sloppy, non existent phrasing, lack of knowledge of the words or their context with very little emotive power, and splatty, forced high notes are all things that dilute the power of an opera aria, which can be truly extraordinary when sung in the way it was written. In the same way, when opera singers sing pop songs or make pop albums, they often sound "funny" to the ear and aren't able to embody that same closeness to speech that a less trained instrument can naturally accomplish. It really does go both ways.

That's not to say that there are no operatic "prodigies" in existence. Rosa Ponselle made her debut at the Met when she was 19, and when I first knew I would be working with the soprano Alex Penda (formerly Alexandra Pendachanska) I found her on youtube and discovered this astounding video of her singing Violetta's aria Sempre Libera when she was 17 years old. My mouth literally fell on the floor when I heard the power and control she had at 17, and was tickled to discover that despite singing an aria that most people would NOT recommend for any 17 year old, she turned out to be one of the most technically accomplished, incredible singers I have ever worked with as an adult. The difference, I imagine, between Alex and some of these child and teen singers on television is that her mother was a trained singer and teacher with a professional career, and despite her mature repertoire choices, she was always cognizant of taking care of her instrument. She may have sung this aria for this concert, but I guarantee you she didn't perform it over and over day after day - and I know this because I have personally heard her sing beautifully as an adult, and witnessed her astounding technique by standing right next to her on stage while she sang.

I don't think children should be discouraged from learning how to sing in the classical style - especially if they become interested in opera - hooray! Another convert! But they have to be carefully monitored if they want to continue singing athletically. Perhaps one of these days we'll get someone like Jonas Kauffman to go onto America's Got Talent wearing a baseball cap and a moustache, and telling them he's been working as a used car salesmen and studying opera on the side. If those audiences hear HIM sing Nessun Dorma, there's no WAY they can avoid being excited and mesmerized. Then maybe we could get a few more people to come to the opera and see what all the fuss is truly about.