I suppose we will always be plagued by critics -- those dour miseries who find fault with everything that gives the rest of humanity joy. It seems that they must pick apart everything they encounter no matter how near perfection, even that which to the rest of us borders on the sublime. One wonders how they got that way. Did they not get the pricey toy they whined for on their birthday? Did Santa Claus leave coal in their Christmas stocking because mommy caught them fibbing about breaking the goldfish bowl? Were they denied ice cream and crumpets because someone saw them kicking the dog?
Or, more likely, did they secretly aspire to great things themselves, only to lack that vital ingredient, talent, and end up mired in mediocrity -- forever after fated to live out a life of jealousy and envy, lashing out at the very thing absent in themselves? Normally, one should ignore their rantings lest they sully enjoyment of true artists. However, instances do occur where bounds are overstepped, and excesses should be redressed. For me, such a case is that of ten year old Dutch vocalist wunderkind Amira Willighagen, who received almost universal acclaim upon her emergence -- except for a few spiteful critics who gave us examples of just how much resentful bitterness can warp a person.
Enter the Prodigy
I've always had a fascination with things exceptional. There's something worthy of admiration in those whose skills lie far outside the norm, from humming birds to cheetahs to Olympic athletes to Mozart. Queue Amira and her October 2013 debut at age nine, singing Puccini's "O Mio Babbino Caro" in the qualifying round of Holland's Got Talent, a performance which created an overnight YouTube sensation. Talent judge Gordon Heuckeroth, astounded by the performance called Amira "an old soul," the reincarnation of Maria Callas. Amira went on to sing Ave Maria in the semis and Nessun Dorma, a difficult piece that mesmerized the judges, in the finals, which she won in a landslide.
Amira's debut YouTube video soared into the millions of hits within days and subsequent performances have also done well. Like others, I was fascinated by the amazingly mature voice emanating from such a remarkable and yet delightfully unaffected little creature. Soon Amira had a web site as well as her own YouTube channel, and her story was available, the nature of the prodigy all too evident.
Briefly, because the story is told there, after watching her older brother play the violin in public on Queensday, six year old Amira decided that she would sing the following year since she wanted to do something other than be "that girl only eating cookies. . ." So at age seven, she made her first ever appearance, having taught herself to sing by watching opera songs on YouTube. No one can say what another is thinking, but my guess after watching her is as follows. First, she wants to sing. Second, she's not yet as good as she wants to be. Third, she's determined to become better.
Soon thereafter, she announced that she wanted to appear on TV. Her parents said no, but she kept insisting so finally they agreed that at age nine she could try it, figuring that by then all would have been long forgotten. However, the nine year old Amira had not forgotten, and had in fact become an entirely self-taught and surprisingly accomplished soprano. Having made the promise, her parents had to accede to her wishes, and the rest is history -- a prodigy was born.
I have zero musical ability or training. So I go entirely by what I hear. Technicalities aside, Amira's voice is, to me, pure gold. In the lower registers her voice has a depth and richness that is just magic -- mature far beyond her age -- and she has a soprano's range, with a clarity of expression that is a delight to behold. A perusal of La Divina via Internet will convince that Amira is not (yet) the reincarnation of Maria Callas (compare "O Mio Babbino Caro" or marvel at "Ombra Leggiera"). However, give her time to become whatever she will be on her own terms.
More importantly for now, interviews and family videos reveal a remarkably well-adjusted, fun-loving ten year old (as of 2014). At home, she's just another child; on stage, she is exactly the same, at ease as a performer. Early success does not appear to have diminished a naturally buoyant personality. Her parents wisely ensure that her musical brother is always with her at appearances, a factor that surely benefits both.
Soon after discovering Amira, I came across videos of Jackie Evancho performing the same selections (e.g. O Mio Babbino Caro) at a comparable age. Jackie's progress from her initial performances gives an idea of how much improvement is possible for child performers who burst on the scene at an early age. Jackie is extremely talented, and she is now a polished performer, with skill that exhibits musical maturity. Her voice is well developed and she has an open and warm stage presence.
Comparisons are inevitable, although I prefer to talk of contrasts in style since comparisons can sometimes carry unintended negative connotations. Both were exceptional at their debut, each in her own way; no criticism is implied in suggesting differences that are, after all, simply my own personal perceptions. To me, at similar ages Amira's voice seems perhaps a bit more natural and her presence on stage less rehearsed; whereas a young Jackie seemed a more self-consciously practiced performer.
Amira's more intuitive presence may reflect the fact that she was initially self-taught and therefore came to the stage as just herself rather than as a performer -- Amira still appears with Schilpaddie, her stuffed turtle. There is a happy charm, a guilelessness, a joie de vivre about Amira's presence, on stage and off, that draws listeners in and says, I'm pleased to sing these songs for you. Nevertheless, each young lady has her own way of expressing her natural personality and talent.
Yet another youthful musical prodigy is on the scene, nine year old multi-talented Brit musician and composer Alma Deutscher. Given a violin at three, she composed her first sonata at six. Known as "Little Miss Mozart," she plays both violin and piano, and she has ten compositions to her credit, including the opera "The Sweeper of Dreams", written at age 7. She can be seen here with Amira singing the stepsisters duet from her opera "Cinderella" -- and the two of them are obviously having great fun with the pairing.
The Grinches Surface
The response to these young ladies has been almost universally favorable, but not entirely so. Initial apprarances by Jackie and Amira brought forth a few malicious screeds from detractors determined to apply adult standards to nine year olds, as absurd as that may seem to any rational person. Of course, there is a place for objective and constructive critique in any domain. It can be invaluable in the learning and maturation process. However, any unbiased assessment should exhibit balance and objectivity, noting positives as well as negatives -- whereas some critics simply had nothing good to say, displaying an acerbic and sometimes hostile ad hominem negativism that reflected more on their own character than on those they criticized, compounded by the nastiness of ignoring that children aren't adults.
Spurious assertions that talent was lacking by detractors whose motive appeared to be mean-spirited envy were patently false. Such contentions were often accompanied by denunciation of the very idea of child performers: Amira's breath control was not perfect; she sometimes missed a note; her Italian was off; and (opera critics here) she could never project her unaided voice to the far reaches of a ginormous opera hall like a real opera singer, nor as a child could she understand and emote to the opera arias she sings as could a woman who has come of age. The same snarky putdowns were hurled at Jackie Evancho, particularly the opera singer libel.
The opera canard simply amounts to a strawman, pummeled relentlessly but irrelevantly. Neither Jackie nor Amira claim to be opera singers. Jackie explicitly embraces the classical crossover genre, and Amira is a very young child who loves to sing opera arias, in her words, simply "because they are beautiful." Critics should try a remedial reading comprehension class if they don't understand the difference. Both began well before nine, and in Amira's case she was initially self-taught. To criticize a nine year old child for lacking the skills of a fully developed, mature singer with years of voice training and experience is not only irrational but it is ill-mannered and hints at a darker side inherent to the perpetrator.
Perhaps the most insidious slam has been that each mimicked other performers early on. Young Jackie Evancho's stage gestures and singing style echoed established artists, a resemblance that could hardly have been accidental. Amira, while quite natural on stage, was panned for having taught herself to sing by watching YouTube videos. This begs the question, how else were these extraordinary ladies, born into mainstreet families, to emerge? Unlike Athena, they did not spring forth fully mature from the brow of Zeus. Without the benefit of gods and Olympus, they had to start somewhere. Only someone mired in the fever swamps of jealousy and envy could condemn the embryonic performances of a nine year old child for not being fully developed.
One critic dismissed Jackie Evancho's early talent show appearances contemptiously, opining that she had "many years" of work ahead before she would amount to anything. Needless to say, Jackie's success and broad acceptance (see her "Time to Say Goodbye" duet with Sarah Brightman, the best selling soprano of all time) soon rendered such sniping irrelevant. Now a star, Evancho reaps the rewards conferred by talent and dedication, soaring above the impotent grasp of such critics.
The Next Stage. . .
Two cautions seem relevant concerning child prodigies such as Jackie, Amira and Alma. Some doubt that children so young should be exposed to the pressures of performing. While there are parents who pressure their children -- which is wrong and potentially harmful -- the opposite is the case here. The urge to express their creative artistry practially burst forth unbidden from each of these young ladies, in Amira's case despite her parents' initial go-slow admonitions. To suppress or deny any child the opportunity to fulfill a self-evident potential would be terribly unfair. In such cases, parents are given a special gift as well as a singular responsibility to nurture and shepherd the child on the way to maturation.
The second reservation is that, pushed too far too soon, child singers, particularly sopranos, run the risk of damaging their voices. This is a valid concern, and one for which paramount responsibility rests with parents. In the case of Jackie Evancho, it appears that good decisions were and are being made. She has modulated her repetoire, featuring a broad slice of contemporary selections, often with spectacular results. (e.g. her unique one-time rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Waters.)
Amira also appears to be getting the instruction she needs. Soon after her debut her parents placed her under the care of a voice coach. Thankfully, coaching has not altered her natural, unaffected stage presence. Fortuitously, Dutch law limits the number of appearances children can make. Whether Amira will rise to great heights remains to be seen. But, her 2014 Maasriecht performance with Andre Rieu, well less than a year after her debut, hints at her potential. And her performance of O Holy Night at London's Royal Albert Hall in December 2014 took her into new territory, with its wide range and high note near the end.
Some child prodigies burn out or lose interest and some never progress beyond their initial flash. So there are no guarantees, and only time will tell what arc Amira will follow. She is naturally athletic as well as musically talented -- which may contribute to the grace of her voice -- and she has said that athletics could also be a goal. She is still very young, with time to develop in whatever direction she wishes -- but she already possesses a strong sense of self and a quite impish sense of humor. During one interview, she replied to the inevitable question about her future as a singer that she might just decide to work at a fast food restaurant instead! And her reaction to winning Holland's Got Talent was pure 9 year old child!
But one suspects that she may just continue to evoke memories of Maria Callas. Her performance of O Mio Babbino Caro at the Sanremo Junior Festival, just after her eleventh birthday, suggests an awakening understanding of her true measure as an artist. For the first time on stage she performed not merely as a singer of a song but also as the source of its meaning, putting expression and dynamism into her performance that has previously been missing. Perhaps significantly, those who followed Maria Callas' career, and especially those who have watched her perform, realize that her genius lay as much in her ability to give meaning to her art as in her voice. That Amira is beginning to do this at eleven seems worthy of note.
One of the defining characteristics of genius is a resolve to persevere. This single-minded focus, as mundane as it may seem to those who do not possess it, is a cornerstone wellspring of creativity, and Amira appears to have it, else she would not have been so determined at age six to sing in public, and again at age seven to perform on television -- and to dedicate herself for the long hours necessary to make it happen.
For my part, I'm of the opinion that prodigies like Jackie, Amira and Alma are to the world like rainbows to the sky, gifts sent to inspire and uplift -- as well as to fulfill their own destinies. Critics, like static on the airwaves, are to be tuned out and forgotten.
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