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Posted by on Dec 10, 2012 in Articles | 107 comments

About those child opera singers: here’s the deal

About those child opera singers: here’s the deal

Bringing you the Best of 2012!  This article by Virginia Opera’s Glenn Winters caused quite the controversy!  The article tells it how it is, and the comments…. well…. check out the comments!

by Glenn Winters

I’m going to let all you music-lovers in on a little secret:  we professional musicians don’t have much use for the phenomenon of the Child Prodigy.  Six year old violinists playing Mendelssohn; ten year old pianists playing Rachmaninov; and especially *shudder* twelve year old girls belting out operatic arias… or country music… or whatever… on national television?  Yeah, it’s impressive.  Sort of.  You can keep ‘em; I have no interest, especially when it comes to the miniature singers.

You know that NPR program “From The Top”, featuring adolescent or pre-adolescent performers stunning us with their “maturity” and precocity?

I am not a devotee of that program.

If you are, that’s swell for you.  Enjoy. But most professionals in the classical music arena look askance at pint-sized virtuosi.  So many reasons…

For one thing, the great majority of child performers will eventually crash and burn attempting to make the transition from intuitive tot to analytical adult.  There was once a centipede who was asked, “When you walk, in what order do you move your many legs?”  The poor bastard had never thought about that, and became so self-conscious he never walked again.  This syndrome is the norm for talented kiddies.  Child pianists memorize intuitively, by ear; adult professionals memorize in the framework of an analytical system.  Children who have been learning complicated masterworks without really knowing how they were doing it can fall into a similar state of paralysis.

Furthermore, that “unusual musical maturity” you think you detect in the oh-so-polished phrasing of a Chopin Nocturne or Paganini Etude is not organic maturity at all.  It’s apery; it’s mimicry; it’s the result of carefully imitating some adult’s interpretation, be it from the teacher or some recording.  Musical compositions which express profound insights about love, loss and life are beyond the ken of a nine year old and that’s just how it is.  Having a good ear is not the same thing as musical insight.

Another problem relating to emerging from the prodigy stage:  child stars become accustomed to being the most successful performer wherever they are.  They win the competitions; they receive the adulation; they are Number One, baby!  They are able to play difficult compositions eighty percent perfectly with little effort.  That in itself poses a problem: when such young musicians go on to major in their instrument at the college or conservatory level, they are too often content to continue achieving 80% perfection with 40% effort.  It’s not unusual that they find, to their bewilderment, that they are surpasssed by less gifted students who achieve 95% perfection with 110% effort.  It’s the old Hare-vs-Tortoise story applied to the piano.  A few of you may remember a child prodigy of some twenty years ago, a Greek pianist named Dmitri Sgouros.  He made a sensation performing on the “Tonight Show” and playing the Third Piano Concerto of Rachmaninov at age ten or eleven.  My wife knew one of his teachers in America and was privy to the following anecdote:  At age eleven, Sgouros played through the Brahms Piano Sonata in F Minor, a five-movement beast to play, at sight.  He then played through it a second time and pronounced the piece memorized and ready for performance.  Wow!  Gee!  Gasp!  Why, he’s another Franz Liszt!

It’s now 2012 and Dmitri Sgouros is a musician in this thirties.  Is he the greatest living pianist?  Does he perform to sold-out houses in New York, Chicago and L.A.?  Will he go down in history?  And was his performance of the Brahms F Minor Sonata a performance for the ages?

No, no, no and no.  He’s got a website; plays in Greece and so forth–that’s nice, I suppose.  See, the reality is that for every Yehudi Menuhin (prodigy who became an all-time great artist), there are one hundred Dmitri Sgouros’s whose bright flame dims with age.  (I know that statistic is accurate because I just made it up.)

But as much disdain and eye-rolling weariness as I feel for instrumental prodigies (and I’ve actually taught a few in my teaching career), it’s nothing compared to the scorn I feel for Children Who Sing Opera.

As Joan Rivers would say, can we talk?  Let’s get something straight:  opera is to singing as neuro-surgery is to medicine.  No pre-adolescent children should ever do it, and few teen-agers should do much of it.  Yes, yes, I know all about Roberta Peters having made her Metropolitan Opera debut at age sixteen.  Big whoop, don’t care.  Until their hormones have finished percolating, children should sing (duh) music written for children: in a children’s choir, in school, in church, heck – even in an opera, providing it’s a role written for a child. with a child’s limitations in mind.

Not mentioned by name…. but sure fits the bill…. (FYI – Photo selected by editor, not author y’all)

Let me explain.  The best metaphor for allowing children to sing adult operatic literature is found in Little League baseball.  A responsible Little League coach ensures that a ten-year-old pitcher will throw the ball easily, with a fluid, non-stressful pitching motion.  Some specimens in the coaching community, however, can’t resist the urge to teach kids to throw trick pitches:  curve balls, sliders, screwballs, and so on.

The problem, of course, is that these pitches place a high degree of stress on bones, muscles and tendons.   However, the muscular-skeletal system of a baseball player in middle school is still a work in progress and, as such, incapable of tolerating such stress without inducing inflammation at best and serious injury at worst.

It’s the very same scenario with children singing opera.  The fact is that many college-level voice majors are kept away from the music of Puccini, Verdi and such composers until they enter graduate school.

But here’s the worst thing, the thing that really drives me NUTS:  when I try to explain this to non-musicians, NO ONE EVER BELIEVES ME!  ARRRRGGGGHHHH!!  Here are the standard responses I can expect to hear:

“Really?  Well, it sounded fine to me…”

“Oh, you and your doctorate.  You just aren’t accustomed to working with younger children, I expect.”

“Well, I don’t see any problem; he/she certainly seems to enjoy it.”

“What’s the matter, Glenn – feeling a little jealous?”  (Oh yes, how perceptive of you: I’m eaten up with envy that I shall never appear on “America’s Got Talent”.  *snort*)

“Well, I know the teacher, and that teacher is supposed to be really good.  I’m sure it’s okay in this case.”

NO!  No it isn’t!  Not for an eleven year old girl singing Musetta’s Waltz or “O mio babbino caro”!  Not okay, not okay!  That teacher is either delusional or a hack!  Stop singing opera!  Stop singing opera!  The vocal folds which produce musical tones are a highly delicate, extremely fragile, easily damaged organ.  Adult opera singers are at risk of incurring injury from over-use; what chance do you think Shirley Temple Junior has?  Think about it.  That Tweenie girl singing opera is writing checks her body can’t cash, even though, yes, it might sound perfectly lovely to YOUR amateur’s ears.  You don’t get to hear her ten years later when her instrument has degraded to the point that a career in the opera field is no longer an option.

And my objections aren’t limited to the vocal hazards.  Putting a child on television to sing, be it a local, regional, or national audience, is no way to raise a kid.  It’s even worse when the TV program is in the format of a competition.  You do understand that a child with an unusually mature voice still has a child’s emotional maturity, don’t you?  A youngster who has been always been praised for her beautiful voice is swimming with sharks once a Career In Show Business has been launched.  Regardless of how much cash is earned, regardless of the fan letters received or the pride felt by the pushy stage-parents, here’s what the child faces:

  • Hurtful, snide criticism by the Simon Cowells of the world.
  • Losing; losing competitions, losing recording contracts if sales aren’t up to snuff; and public rejection for everyone to see, perhaps with TV cameras trained on their faces as someone else’s name is announced as the winner, following the trail of tears rolling down their cheeks.  Losing an election for class president is a valuable experience; losing a damn singing contest on TV at a young age is traumatic.
  • Being regarded as a freak by other children their own age
  • The pressure of doing what they’re doing so as not to disappoint the adults in their lives: ambitious parents, the teacher who may be fixated on the vicarious thrill of a student’s success; adults with whom they spend most of their time interacting instead of with their chronological peers.

I know there are highly-educated, well-intended private voice teachers out there in your community who “specialize” in the vocal training of children and likely come with any number of glowing endorsements and recommendations.  Here’s my recommendation: if your ten year old daughter has a nice voice, do her a favor and let her take piano or guitar lessons.  Then she’ll have the solid musical foundation and musicianship skills that will pay dividends when she reaches the age Mother Nature intended for serious vocal study to begin.  If that highly educated private teacher gives her simple songs to sing with a modest range, asking her to perform only in studio recitals, you may just scrape by without doing permanent damage.

I mean, what’s your hurry, anyway?  Children sing in church, home and school.  Leave the stage and the recording studio to the big bad grownups.  Thanks.
Dr. Winters received his Doctor of Music from Northwestern University, and also holds the B.M. and M.M. in piano performance from Indiana University. His background includes teaching college-level piano, arts administration at two universities, and extensive performing experience as solo pianist and accompanist. As an operatic baritone, Dr. Winters has sung over a dozen principal roles; he made his Virginia Opera debut in the 2004 production of The Merry Widow. His compositions include two children’s operas commissioned by Virginia Opera’s Education department: History Alive! and Tales From the Brothers Grimm.  His first book, THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing.  He joined Virginia Opera’s Education and Audience Development Department in 2004 as Community Outreach Musical Director.

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  1. Well, SSS, he knows she traveled from the US to Japan (arggg ro that travel), and had AT LEAST one performance in Japan (sorry, not sure), then did Vegas, and then CA, in Dec, Jan; a heavy duty schedule on her web site is coming up.

    Sorry, SSS, you are wrong. Toby is right on.

  2. Singing Shortstop,

    I quoted the passage from her web site above. I specifically checked once again after your comment. I perhaps understand her schedule more fully than you do.

    Simply put, she is performing a schedule that is far too dense for a child even with a microphone.

    I am not female, nor am I an elderly male.

  3. Well, SSS, he knows she traveled from the US to Japan (arggg ro that travel), and had AT LEAST one performance in Japan (sorry, not sure), then did Vegas, and then CA, in Dec, Jan; a heavy duty schedule on her web site is coming up.

    Sorry, SSS, you are wrong. Toby is right on.

  4. To bad you can’t repeat this sanctimonious BS to Beverly Sills. Now Anna Maria Albeghetti, Julie Andrews and Deanna Durbin are still alive, so you can get together as professional musicians and bash child prodigies. But then again maybe not, seeing as they were even younger than Ms Evancho when they started singing. I have the feeling that you are just another nobody looking for a few minuets of attention with this ridiculous article.

  5. Sheila H.:

    Thank you. The web site reports a concert, another performance at the Imperial Palace and performances on numerous television programs all in Japan.

    I was not aware of the concerts you noted. Unlike other singers her schedule is not archived and available for viewing as one page.

  6. Sorry for the double post. Wasn’t showing up.

  7. Two questions for any child prodigy:

    Does the child attend school on a regular basis, with a teacher and with children of the same age?

    Does the child’s parents have a career that they are currently receiving a salary for outside of their child’s income?

  8. Jackie has had 3 concerts in 1 1/2 months. Only one in Japan. Please don’t elaborate on what has actually happened in order to prop a false scenario.

  9. SSS, yes, you could be right technically about 3 concerts in a 1 1/2 month period, but it was however performances in Japan, Dec 29 in Vegas, Jan. in CA, two performances in DC in early Feb, three on the books for both Feb. and March. Travel to Japan and back (brutal from my experience) plus travel to CA from the East in Jan. and Feb. Busy kid.

  10. @toby

    The Japan trip consisted of one concert featuring ten songs, a private audience with the Royal Family where she might have sung two songs at the most. She sang only one song at her TV appearances. So maybe 15 songs. I thought the trip was too short. She should have played more dates in Japan because it’s so far away.

    As to her upcoming concerts, she has done that before out there. She’ll be ok.

  11. Sheila, what you listed is hardly an overload.

    Also there is a FULL MONTH break between her Feb and March concerts.

    All of what we are speaking of is a walk in the park, especially for someone that sings with proper techniques as she is.

  12. Very curious, so I expended time to go through a portion of the news section of Jackie Evancho’s official site. I also read Wikipedia’s Evancho entry.

    I have found this information which is pieced together from news tidbits and may have some errors.

    Sept 15, performance of Nessun Dorma on America’s Got Talent, LA
    Followed by television promotion

    Oct 19 concert in Tokyo, Japan (David Foster)
    Oct 20 concert in Tokyo, Japan (David Foster)

    Nov 7 – NYC concert

    Dec 8 – performance for WSJ (numerous songs?)
    December 15 – Buffalo, NY concert
    December 17 – Atlantic City, NJ concert
    December 20 – Pittsburgh, PA concert
    Dec 29 – Las Vegas concert

    January 11 – Japan, Musical Meets Symphony concert performance
    January 13 – Japan full Concert
    Imperial performance, Japan
    tv promotional appearances, Japan

    Feb 2 Wash CD performance

    Feb 22
    Feb 24
    Feb 26
    March 26
    March 28
    March 31
    June 3
    June 6
    June 8
    Aug 25

    I also judge from the news tidbits that a full studio Christmas CD was recorded sometime in 2011, perhaps the summer(?) and Evancho undertook a part in a movie.

    I am aware another studio cd was released early in 2011, which must have come with additional promotion.

    Very busy child.

  13. I’m back from playing bridge and see that there have been some attempts to answer my questions. To those of you who made an honest effort, thank you.

    The foray into psychobabble was interesting also, but probably not useful.

    Ben there, remember that it was Dr. Winters’ article that told us all that she shouldn’t be singing opera. As you say, we agree on that, she should be singing CC or whatever and her name shouldn’t have even come up.

    There are a lot of us that like that kid a lot, and treat her (in our minds) s though she was another of our grand-kids. Pointless attacks of an 11 year-old aren’t going to be well received by all these “foster grandparents”. Hopefully this will put a little perspective on things.

  14. Halleluiah Ben!

    That was the most adept and accurate description ever written in describing this most ardent segment of Jackie Evancho followers. The archetypes, attributes of attachment, compelled rescuing and such, fit to a tee. Even the mention of “what belongs to us” is so apropos to many of this Jackie Evancho fan sect considering some actually believe their possessory claim precludes that even of Jackie’s own parents. One example demonstrated recently was a member rejoicing in what he perceived as Jackie’s annoyance toward her mother interrupting her during an interview in which Jackie was providing inaccurate information regarding her prior singing experience.

    I am encouraged by your optimism that a man’s capacity to mature and individuate endures beyond their mid-life years. Let’s hope that wisdom does triumph and that Jackie’s music and career can be enjoyed long-term without peril to all involved.

  15. Classical Mika, went to see the Wiki entry too, and notice that before she did America’s Got Talent in September, there were these concerts:

    June 4, 2011 – Britain’s Got Talent

    Summer 2011 – Summer Concert Tour

    I saw that there were YouTube clips from summer concerts in GA and TX; Wiki called it a solo ‘tour’ but I am not aware of the other cities involved.

  16. Mika, thank you for showing her schedule is moderately light. 10 concerts next 6 1/2 months. It wouldn’t be disadvantageous to more than double that. Plenty of performing children have several times more concerts. Thanks again

  17. A rough calculation would make that about 6 total hours of concert singing in approximately 7,700 hours. Do you suppose there would be some free time in there that she could live like a “normal” child? LOL!

  18. Is this the blog where we attack people that have a different take on life than our own?

    The blog where we diminish people that don’t conform to our standards?

    The blog where the goal is to homogenize the ARTS and America?

    We wouldn’t want individuals, especially in the arts to be unique after all.

    Throwing a curve ball isn’t natural, hence the propensity of an injury when not mechanically perfect. Operatic singing isn’t natural, hence the propensity of an injury when not mechanically perfect. Looks like the meeting of two of America’s “past” times!

    Just kidding, as I’m well aware of opera being a growing culture.

    Am I to understand from the the OP that music from the heart is less relevant than music attained by technically imprinted?

    I’m confused by the point of this article.

    Thanks, have a nice day!

  19. Jackie’s schedule averages out to ~1 hr singing per week. Does that sound “heavy” to ANYONE here? Honestly? Even if you double it, & say she’s singing 2 hrs/wk, or even 3? Thousands & thousands & thousands of children singing in choruses & other places sing more.

    “When You Wish Upon a Star” has been cited as a “safe song for children” to sing. Well, guess what? It has the SAME features as many Puccini arias do: jumps of up to an octave, long sustained phrases where an adult wouldn’t take breaths, & a relatively broad range. There just isn’t much difference. Even the Star Spangled Banner has a broad range. Do we discourage children from singing the SSB or WYWUAS? Of course not. We just don’t want them to “belt.”

    Jackie’s lungs are small, so she has to breathe more frequently than an adult would. But her breath support is excellent, so except for those more frequent breaths, she easily & safely sustains high & low notes.

    Barring obvious things like screaming & roaring, the most dangerous thing is singing at volume in the upper modal (“normal” or “chest”) register. Projecting operatically, or “belting” in other genres, requires this dangerous practice. But Jackie doesn’t do these things. It is NOT dangerous for her to sing Puccini the way she does: amplified & with key changes. Her more frequent breaths may not be artistically desirable, but singing that way isn’t dangerous.

  20. A caveat: ALL singing is potentially dangerous, even if one takes precautions & trains properly. My point is that Puccini arias like O Mio Babbino Caro & Nessun Dorma are no more dangerous than When You Wish Upon a Star, as long as amplification & key changes are allowed, & the singer doesn’t “belt.”

  21. @PG Antioch. I must ask, why incorporate honest logic, when innuendos and implications are so much more colorful! You don’t know a good thing when you’re staring at it! You, you unrabble rouser you!

  22. A normal little girl does not travel around the world and have numerous concerts of an HOUR of her singing. Usually kids who sing would have a song or two for each concert and that would be maybe two to three a semester. Any little girl does not have that kind of endurance. Why can’t parents let kids be kids? They could still do what they love but depriving them of an actual childhood should be a crime.

  23. BTW I have looked on youtube for an opera singer singing Nessun Dorma. I only found Sarah Brightman and Jackie Evancho, and they’re not opera singers.

    Why are female opera singers afraid to tackle that aria?? If Jackie can sing it, surely they can too…

  24. CATMANDO! Lordy sakes! Heaven forbid! Don’t you know anything! This beautiful aria was not written for a woman. Shame, shame, shame on you! I shudder at the thought of a anyone but a tenor portraying Calaf, and only in the proper setting at that! Singing Nessun in a dog & pony variety show is tantamount to sinning. May the lord have mercy on your soul……

  25. Respect is not a concept that seems common to some Jackie Evancho fans.

    Why would a classical soprano sing Nessun Dorma?

    Nessun Dorma indeed is written in a tenor key and would therefore not be sung by a trained classical soprano.

    I fail to see when she would sing it, irregardless.

    She would have no need to do so, frankly, since a soprano wouldn’t play the tenor role in an opera. In concert, she would sing her arias from her roles or less commonly art songs written for soprano. There are hundreds of gorgeous arias written for the soprano voice. Why do Nessun Dorma?

    I also would suspect that if Puccini intended it to be sung in soprano key, he would have provided that transposition.

    Truthfully, however, I can’t imagine an opportunity to sing Nessun Dorma anywhere, even if a decision was made to transpose it.

  26. PG Antioch,

    Your logic would be reasonable if there was also a corresponding understanding of the voice.

    You do not “average” singing time. The idea shows no understanding of the muscles of the vocal folds. Singing back to back to back is highly difficult.

    The most commonly used example (to the point of cliche) in the classical world is marathon running. A runner cannot run three marathons within a week and then say that it is fine because it averages out to three marathons over two months. The wear on the body over those three marathons is huge because the body never recovered in between. Each successive marathon creates more wear than the one before. Much the same as the wear on small vocal folds with closely spaced performances.

    Singing once a week would be much better.

    The idea that full concerts plus singing a few songs here and there is alright is also suspect.

    Compare this to a concussion. While the concussion is healing, even small bumps can eliminate whatever healing has been done previously, because it’s been made sensitive. Much the same with a full concert, then a few songs here and there for a week and then a full concert. The vocal folds will not have been allowed to recover.

    It is logical in fact.

  27. So it comes down to “respect”. Yeah, sure Puccini would be losing sleep over this. Whatta JOKE!

    FYI Mika.. Jackie ain’t runnin’ no marathons, but nice try. Please play again.

  28. @Classical Mika

    When Jackie sings at concerts, she typically sings two 20-25 min sets, often with extra breaks in between. There are orchestra-only pieces. She has been singing with several tenors doing duets but also having those tenors sing several songs separately.

    Actually, running 3 marathons in a week would be very, very difficult but not impossible. Ultra-marathoners run a hundred miles at a time. Remember, we’re specifying that the runner would get a month or two to recover.

    So doing 3 concerts in 5 days the way Jackie does them, then having a month (or ~25 days) off, is only mildly demanding. Plenty of performing children have much, much heavier schedules. And Jackie has said she “loves every minute of it.” (That’s a direct quote.) She loves everything that has happened to her, & her parents are the ones who sometimes have to hold her back.

    Recall, as Ehkzu said, that singing an opera aria in a concert is a very different thing than singing it in an opera. Is Nessun Dorma a tenor aria? Of course, but it’s in the context of an incredibly bizarre story where Prince Calàf is inexplicably attracted to the psychopathic serial killer Princess Turandot. Now THAT’S crazy.

    In concert it can become a completely different thing, a song about longing & triumphing over difficulties. Thankfully, it says NOTHING about Turandot’s murderous habits. It may offend your classical asthetic sensibilities, but IYAM it’s a whole lot more logical in concert than in that bizarre libretto for Turandot (which Puccini didn’t much like anyway, as you’ll probably agree).

    Can a woman possibly sing it? Well, to make it heterosexual it requires 2 (count ‘em, TWO) word changes: “principessa” must change to “principe”: & “che ti fa mia” must change to “che ti fa mio.” That’s it. Those are the changes Sarah Brightman made (though Katherine Jenkins elected to sing the original words). Now traditionally, men are a whole lot less likely than women to be in their cold rooms looking at the stars, but hey – it’s not totally impossible. And IYAM that’s a lot more likely than being irresistably attracted to a serial killer, AND being confident your kiss can make her love you instead of arranging to have you killed, like she did to all the others.

    Since its range as written for a tenor is D3-B4, a soprano could easily sing it an octave higher & be comfortably within her range. In the modern age, it’s perfectly reasonable to consider doing it.

    I stand by my assertion that singing Puccini arias, allowing amplification & key changes (which are possible in concert but not in the opera), is NOT any more dangerous than singing When You Wish Upon a Star & the Star Spangled Banner. O Mio Babbino Caro has a smaller range than WYWUAS, & the SSB the way almost all the sopranos sing it now (“o’er the land of the free-EE”) has a full 2-octave range, more than either aria. Range of course isn’t everything, but WYWUAS has the long phrasing Puccini preferred.

    Pavarotti made Nessun Dorma famous, but as you no doubt know, he didn’t like to sing the entire part of Calàf in the opera. As a lyric tenor, singing the rest of the opera hurt his voice as he tried to sing over the heavier orchestration Puccini wrote for a spinto or dramatic tenor. I submit that had Pavarotti SOMEhow been able to use amplification, it wouldn’t have hurt his voice to try to sing over the orchestra.

    OMBC & ND developed their difficult reputations because the high notes of both must be sung above the passaggio, in upper (head) register, but their low notes still require a lot of power. In the opera, ND was written for a spinto/dramatic tenor, & sometimes it’s very difficult for those rich voices to retain their timbre above the passaggio.

  29. Respect is not a concept that seems common to some Jackie Evancho fans.

    Why would a classical soprano sing Nessun Dorma?

    Nessun Dorma indeed is written in a tenor key and would therefore not be sung by a trained classical soprano.

    I fail to see when she would sing it, irregardless.

    She would have no need to do so, frankly, since a soprano wouldn’t play the tenor role in an opera. In concert, she would sing her arias from her roles or less commonly art songs written for soprano. There are hundreds of gorgeous arias written for the soprano voice. Why do Nessun Dorma?

    I also would suspect that if Puccini intended it to be sung in soprano key, he would have provided that transposition.

    Truthfully, however, I can’t imagine an opportunity to sing Nessun Dorma anywhere, even if a decision was made to transpose it.


    Nothing better to show one’s bigotry than to accuse Jackie’s fans of disrespect right up front. Way to go hun. :rolleyes:

    Maybe a classical soprano doesn’t want to infringe on male territory? That’s not stopping Classical crossover sopranos though. They don’t think in the same constricted box as opera sopranos. Truth be told, I love hearing a female voice singing ND. I hope Tarja Turunen will sing it one day.

    Hey all it takes is a key change upward and a soprano can sing it. That’s what happened with Jackie.

    WHEN she would sing it??? How bout in a concert on tour like Sarah Brightman sings it? How bout special occasions like talent contests where Jackie sang it?

    Why would a soprano sing Nessun Dorma?? Why explore the bottom of the ocean? Why go to the moon?

    LOL right and if god intended men to fly he would have given them wings eh? :D

    Well don’t listen to Brightman and Evancho sing it then. It might stretch your imagination too far and blow up what little brains you have left.

  30. As a 19-year-old classical singing student who was not raised in classical music, I still totally agree with the article. Most singing teachers don’t give children anything more than art songs or show songs until they are at least in their mid-teens. The operatic repertoire is MUCH tougher. I was only given my first aria last year. I had sung an oratorio piece before, but my current singing teacher said she would never give that particular piece to anyone of my age.

    Jackie Evancho has a number of problems with her singing; she does not have perfect technique as many people think. Just watch her chin when she sings.

    One of my old teachers said that one of the annoying things about being a classical singer is that you DO have to wait for age before you can sing certain things well. If you sing them earlier, you run the risk of damaging your voice, and if you sing them wrong and have to re-sing them later in life, all your bad habits will still be there within the piece, even though you may be a better singer.

    With all of that aside, I listen to a lot of contemporary music, and I have TRIED to listen to crossover by untrained crossover singers: Sissel is about the only one I like. Hayley Westenra is ok (saw her live in 2011, singing with my good friend and fellow singing student Chase Douglas) – beautiful voice, but lacks depth (I have to be loyal to some extent as I am a New Zealander!). I can’t stand Katherine Jenkins, Jackie Evancho, Sarah Brightman. I think in order to be a really good crossover singer, you need to have actually been in the classical world first. I’ve seen trained singers that sing crossover well, but not really the other way around.

    Sorry for the essay! :D

  31. When I was in high school, I had a number of very talented peers–paid actresses, great singers who had been taking voice lessons for years, one who had a classical recording out. I was envious, thinking that I was so behind when I was just discovering that I might really have a voice at 16.

    While my voice continued to develop through college and singing at church, I still felt like all my time was running out. My voice teacher said I had a real shot at performing professionally, but I still wondered, “Don’t you have to start really young?”

    When I was 25, my voice grew up, and I started receving more offers for paid performances and people assumed I was a professional (no music degree). At 26, I started studying voice more intentionally and realized that my attempts to perform as a soprano were all wrong and my fach was much lower than that. Progress has been much better since that realization.

    While I do wish I had studied voice earlier, I have to say that had I tried to really give serious vocal performance a go when I was in my late teens or early 20s, I would have failed. My voice simply wasn’t there yet.

    Singers today are put on such rigid timelines. I feel the pressure of the competition age cutoffs. But really, your voice grows and matures when it gets ready, and also as you grow and mature. I agree with the article. Physiological damage to young voices is a real possibility, but also, the hailing of young talent gives the impression that *real* talent is young talent, and that unless you’re doing big things by a young age that you must not have “it.” And that’s wrong.

    Music performance is about more than talent; it’s also about having a purpose and having something to say. To be technically gifted without really having discovered your purpose with music seems to be a recipe for becoming “just another” person who can sing well or play the piano or what have you. I think that giving musicians, especially singers, time to grow, learn their instrument, learn why they are into this whole music thing and what they want to accomplish, will likely lead to successes that satisfy them on a deeper level.

  32. She is physically not finished growing yet.

  33. I don’t think this is a good idea for a little girl to struggle with the opera and tehre pitches already yet!
    Later on she will be very flat because her voice is forced to sing those high pitches.
    She should take first canto classic al the way whae she is in the high school and then to see what she want to do with her voice.
    I am not jealous but I know what Diva Maria Callas says to me long time ago.I was 12 years old when I took lessons with her .Now I am 52 and I realize as a Ph.D IN mUSIC AND FOREIGN LANGUAGES that a voice is very roh in the biginning.I am from Romania and I was setled in Germany for 16 years.I visit Scala from Milano also and I now what is meaning flexible singing and forced singing.We can’t sacrifice our kids for bringing Glory to us this is against the law!
    Sorry but thsi little girl will not be a opera star later on.Because her voice is forcrd to sound just like a opera diva.She is not… she must have serious throat pain !

  34. I loved this article!! I will send people to it when they try to explain to me how great all these “opera fakers” are. Just because someone is famous does not mean they are the best at what they do. And just because someone’s really good at something “for their age,” it doesn’t mean they are at the zenith of that thing.

    Number one, someone who relies on a microphone is not an opera singer. It’s like telling the prima ballerina at La Scala that some dancer you know can do the splits, so *she’s* the world’s greatest ballerina.

    A few high notes and some vibrato do not an opera singer make… Opera singers sing the way they do in order to carry over a big orchestra, without mikes! They strive to have the highest level of vocal technique over a career, painstakingly taking lessons all through a career to keep the voice in shape. The analogy with brain surgery really is apt. Opera singing is not something for amateurs – it is an art, not some dog and pony show.

    What sticks in the craw of most opera singers is not the fact that a little girl is making a career singing or is famous or is getting more attention than all highly-trained, hard-working opera singers out there. It is not a question of jealousy. It is a question of respect: respect for the music (which is being copied, not interpreted and even then butchered with the use of microphones and transpositions, re-arrangements, etc…) and respect for the people who have spent their lives perfecting this art form.

    I just don’t understand the Jackie Evancho supporters who can not understand the point of this article, and who are grasping at whatever straws or factoids in order to prove it, and thinking that someone who questions her performance are personally attacking a little girl. A little girl should not be singing adult operatic repertoire. Period. Let her sing lovely songs and hopefully not ruin her voice, but please do not act like she is an OPERA SINGER and most of all, please don’t get mad at us opera lovers if we blanch at the thought of someone bastardizing the beautiful music of great composers to make a buck.

    There is plenty of music of all genres out there to choose from – hands off the great operatic classics, please! I dare any of you to listen to a REAL opera singer singing this same repertoire and objectively tell me that a 10-year-old is better. Let’s get serious, people. Ditto for the Sarah Brightmans and the Andrea Bocellis of this world – they are not opera singers, so find something else to sing, please. (Yes, I know Bocelli has sung some operas, but my colleagues who have sung with him have said that the voice is nowhere near as good as 99% of the working tenors out there, and barely audible without a mike.) He’s great at singing (and writing!) soft pop songs, so please just call him a singer, not an opera singer.

    Lastly, the fact remains that certain physical things make it dangerous to put the strain of singing professionally on a child’s voice. The hardening in one’s twenties of certain cartilages that hold the muscles that stretch the vocal cords is one that comes to mind – if these cartilages are still not strong enough, a young singer can cause irreparable damage to the vocal apparatus by singing too much, too high, too hard, etc.. They will permanently bend them out of shape. Even Beverly Sills, for all her fantastic singing through the majority of her career and her seemingly amazing technique, had vocal trouble starting in her 40′s. It is hard to name stellar singers that started singing at precocious ages who did *not* have voices that started to falter in their mid-40′s. However, look at singers of today like Renée Fleming, Daniela Dessi, Edita Gruberova – singing well after their 50′s and 60′s… They started their careers in their twenties. My voice teacher kept me from singing high stuff until the end of college (early twenties!), and I know that this and constant technical work is a reason I still have high f’s after more than 20+ years of a career. Opera singing is not just a bunch of vibrato.

    Very last thing for all you Jackie Evancho supporters to chew on – a friend of mine was conducting a concert with Jackie Evancho, and started asking her some small musical things in rehearsal that he would ask of any professional musician, like “could you sing this a little more piano?” etc… He was not asking for brain surgery nor was he using difficult musical terms – just what any 10-year-old piano student who had been studying a few years would know. Nevertheless, Jackie’s handlers jumped in immediately and told him “not to use any of that complicated musical jargon – just tell her ‘Louder’ and ‘softer’ and that sort of thing.” Despite the fact that she is quite a bright little girl, the people around her are NOT interested in her having any kind of serious musical education nor serious musical discussion. They keep her in a very tight bubble and don’t want anything to disturb that. They are milking the cash cow.

    As much as you may enjoy her music and as much as she may enjoy singing and the attention, it is up to her parents to make the adult decisions in her life that are best for her and help her long-term musical aspirations if that is what she wants to do. Touring all over the world is definitely not the way to ensure a fulfilling childhood nor long-term vocal or artistic development.

    Thanks for letting me vent! And thanks for the wonderful ARTICLE!

    Best to all,
    Laura Claycomb

  35. The only possible relevant comment is that the nameless pictured singer already has a very serious wobble. She will not recover.

  36. YES YES YES YES YES Thank you

  37. Fascinating article! I agree that NPR’s handling of “precocious youngsters” playing difficult Rachmaninov concertos is annoying. I mean – they’re like, these are the up-and-coming artists because they’re soo grand as a child prodigy. But then you never hear about them later. Some child prodigies that have made it are Mozart and Mendelssohn, but these men a rarity, especially nowadays. Aggressively pushed child musicians may often acquire the psychology of a child actor.

  38. Our daughter began singing lessons at 13 and progressed quickly. We were constantly asked when she was going to apply for Britains got Talent. When she was 15 she was heard by a Director from the ROH when she was in an outreach community opera, and he told us she had great potential and asked us if we were going down that route. He was relieved when we told him our daughter wanted to carry on with her lessons and try to audition for music conservatoire when she left school.
    She is now 17 and has just had her auditions and will start at a top London conservatoire in September. It’s no guarantee, but with hard work and luck and her talent, she may have a successful career.
    Her grandmother still cant fathom why we didn’t go with the money and says she could be famous by now! She can’t understand that our daughter wanted to learn the craft not be a 5 minute wonder!

  39. I concur with everything in the article. The author’s knowledge comes from his years as an educator who, I’m sure, has dealt with correcting damage and bad habits gained by over zealous children and “stage moms” etc.
    As a retired vocal music specialist in Elementary music, I too have dealt with the myth of the child prodigy, while they exist, few have the capacity to make the transition to “accomplished adult musician.” Bravo to the author!

  40. I am a “singer.” I discovered singing “late” – I was 28 when I started singing on a regular basis and found out that I actually was good at it. But I am no opera singer. I will sing along with an opera – at home – when I know the melody. I know what it takes and I don’t have it. My fantasy of singing the Queen of Night Aria in public is very much a fantasy. It is very easy to sing along with youtube.

    I’ve heard Jackie sing…and I thought, how pretty – ho hum. Then she breathed in the middle of a phrase and it ruined it for me. When you are singing in a group, you can cheat and breathe in the wrong place (if you dare! Don’t let the conductor catch you!). When you are the soloist, sorry, those phrase lines and commas in the text are there for a reason.

    And even if it averages to one hour of singing, would she not also sing for practice? Dress rehearsal? Radio or TV spots? Just for fun? A bad rehearsal can leave me with a hoarse voice the next day.

    Excellent article. Glad to have read it.

  41. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a blog from start to finish since, like most internet users, I get bored mid-way into the second paragraph, but this article kept me gripped and I couldn’t agree more with every single word!

    I know that it isn’t “supportive” to slam child precocities but to me it’s as tasteless as seeing 4-year-old girls dressed up in mini ball gowns and caked in cosmetics. No child should be dipping their little toes in the murky waters of the big bad adult world before their time. They’ll have to live long enough in it anyway so why hasten it quite so much.

    For me the singer’s 100% emotional commitment is of paramount importance to a great performance but how can a child ever manage that? They haven’t done anything in life so what resources are they going to draw on to plumb the depths of human emotion so regularly demanded in opera? I sang the love duet from I Pagliacci in an opera concert a couple of years ago and it was hard enough for me as an adult, give that to a child and it becomes a freak show.

    Opera composers are/were clever people, surely if they wanted a child to do it then they would have said so!!!

  42. EXCELLENT article and EXCELLENT comments from Laura Claycomb, whom I have been lucky enough to hear in a few operas. I think her comment about “milking a cash cow ” is very apt. Most non-professional singers have no idea how much permanent damage can be done to a voice, especially when singing at a young age. And not using a microphone is one of the many things that separates a true, trained opera singer from a talented amateur.

  43. Okay, so I read the entirety of the commentary above, and I see a lot of arguments over whether Evancho’s concert schedule is too much for a child. I personally am of the opinion that it is, and I am speaking as an elementary music teacher. However, I have another point to make, which I didn’t see mentioned above.

    How many of you have ever performed any piece of music without countless hours of practice on that very piece?

    The fact is that no matter how many or few actual performances an artist gives, they have to practice the music beforehand. Given this fact, and adding that factor into the equation, can we now agree that perhaps this little girl is being pushed to the limits of what her body is capable of? Especially when one throws in intercontinental travel, even a little of it- it’s brutal.

    Children are *exceedingly resilient*, yes; I have seen plenty of examples of that by teaching children. But at some point, now or later, this *will* catch up with the young lady. I hope that she’s able to bounce back afterward, and maybe in 20-25 years, when her voice is mature and she has a full musical education, she’ll be ready to actually do operatic roles properly.

  44. Edit to Previous Post–”I am sixteen Goin’ on 17″ is from The Sound of Music, not My fair Lady (durr, sorry)

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  46. I hear these children and they have talent. I love music and to this day cannot play a note or sing. I am sorry people who studies years and years are jealous, but no one can just imitate that. It is simple either you have talent or don’t. My daughter has listened to Elvis for over a year and cannot imitate or hold a note. I may not have a phd or any musical training, but I am a mother. I see this kids on their ipads and tablets and mp3 players and they have listened for years and cannot sing. Though the kids have fun, God Bless them they have no talent. If the operatic society bahs at these children it has to be with jealousy. These kids may burn out, but if managed and remember they are children they can have a long musical life id they choose so. They are not parrots mimicking, these children hear a beautiful piece of music (like any adult) memorize it (like any trained singer) then belt it out (like any singer). What comes out is beauty and the grace of God and the pure innocence of a child. As a mother leave these prodoigy’s alone, get ever your jealousy and let them shine while they can or most important want to.

  47. Timely article. Yesterday a friend told me to watch an Evancho you tube video (I had never heard of her before)after we had a discussion of opera and my long time love for it. I listened to her and I was under whelmed. Reminded me of another friend who urged me to listen to Andres Bocelli. Again…underwhelmed. I am certainly not jealous as I cannot nor do I ever aspire to sing. These people while having singing talent, are not opera singers. And frankly, a little painful to listen to them attempt serious opera. I agree whole heartedly with Laura Claycomb whom I have had the pleasure of hearing on many occasions. I hope this child does not follow in the footsteps of so many other so called child prodigies.

  48. It’s incredible. I read the article to the end thinking of all the child prodigies: only of this Jackie but also Amira Willighaghen (hear her Nessun Dorma here:,under whose video you will find comments much like these ones and 12-year old Sofia Asgari (here singing the Queen of the Night’s coloratura aria from the Magic Flute well as young Shaquilla from Indonesia (here singing “Oh babbino caro” wearing mascara

    Still, everyone talks about Jackie Evancho in the comments. Yes she’s still singing 7 years after her debut, and luckily she sings less opera and more soft romantic stuff like “My heart will go on” (wasn’t impressed at all by her voice and interpretation, frankly it made me slightly sleepy, but she’s very sweet and good looking, which doesn’t hurt) Jackie recently tweeted that she sings classical music in a pop style. She classifies her genre as “popssical” which is a concept that makes me puke, but which might indeed save her from vocal overload.
    But the point is not Jackie. Yes, he put her picture because he had to pick someone. But can’t you see it’s a trend, and a dangerous one at that? Everyone is trying it now!

    It is true that vocal chord damage will not manifest immediately. Even adult singers have to be careful of how they choose what to sing.
    Maria Callas damaged her voice when she lost all that weight, she was never the same after that (I have her “fat” Aida record, and it was out of this world!). She also damaged it further by going to extremes of vocal range (singing dramatic soprano and then coloratura), and last but not least by doing the night life scene together with Onassis, with cruises and partying. By 1974 her voice was seriously prejudiced as witnessed by the Tokyo concerts with Di Stefano. It broke her heart, and very probably contributed to her seclusion and early death. But she wanted to live her artistic life and personal life to the full, burning the candle at both ends, so to speak, fully knowing the risks. Compare her career to that of Alfredo Kraus: he was a lyrical tenor, and never went beyond this repertoire of Donizetti, Rossini, Bellini, French opera etc.. He didn’t go and sing Othello. And he went on singing almost until the end of his life, because of this good management. Is it possible to choose to be Callas or Kraus? It’s possible to choose good management and vocal longevity, but you don’t choose to have Callas’ talent, passion and fire, that’s something unique that shouldn’t be taken as an example.

    Hello! Opera arias ARE opera, even when sung detached from the whole thing, even when sung in a mini skirt, even when sung from a mike. And they should be honoured as such, with proper interpretation.

    Who was the %&*^$## who said that detached opera arias don’t need interpretation of the music and the lyrics’ feelings? Oh yeah? I suppose that’s a rule you just made up! Just because it’s not in English and most Americans don’t understand the meaning, lyrics don’t count? And what about the music? Doesn’t it convey feelings of sadness or joy or whatever? OK, I’m not going to delve too much on such stupidity. Either you’re an artist or you’re an automaton. If you’re an artist you do interpret, and you should interpret, whatever you perform. Period. The “angelic voices” who just emit notes leave me really really cold. I suppose you can easily replicate this digitally, can’t you? Just like canned beats from a synthesiser bear no similarity to a live drummer!

    Microphones. Yes, they are the culprits, otherwise children who don’t have powerful lungs and diaphragm muscle control necessary for the voice to be heard far and away, wouldn’t be able to try their hand at optera. But, even if amplification makes it possible, still the notes are there. Try singing “Nessun dorma” yourself, please, or any other operatic aria, even transposed a little bit to suit your range, before posting such stupid ideas, and saying it’s easy when you have amplification. The range (from highest to lowest note) is too large for most untrained voices, unless they have innate talent, as those kids undoubtedly do. And you do have to keep a consistent line, not whispering when the difficult part comes, as everybody does when singing in the shower.
    When you sing an opera aria, either at the MET or in your shower, you’re singing opera. And although microphones do make your life easier (also used by operatic singers, when they have to sing in huge stadiums full of shouting fans) you’re singing opera. Not “in a full opera performance in an opera house with opera costumes”, but it’s still opera. Is that clear, or should I make it plainer?

    About child performers in general…

    Child performers are hardly a novelty, of course. And I’m not saying that I’m against the practice in all cases. Especially for those of artistic parentage, it’s quite difficult not to follow in the family footsteps! But they seldom have it easy. I am half-Greek and I used to know Dimitri Sgouros personally. Not your average Joe … and how could he be?
    Yes, the demands of working professionally are a strain even for an adult. How many performers crack down, and have to resort to ehmm… substances to be able to keep up the energy and sparkle, even on nights when they don’t feel in top shape? How many have become addicted – and not only in the rock scene? How many have to take cortisone shots so as not to cancel and important concert?
    Ask showbiz kids how it was to grow up like that: ask Liza Minelli, ask Jodie Foster (who played a prostitute at age 12 in “Taxi Driver”) and so on and so forth.

    The child will face strain even in a non-showbiz environment. True. But if a child shouts during play or while watching a game, he/she may be hoarse for a couple of days, but still it’s play, not work. And there’s no pressure to perform with the hoarse voice, because of previous engagements, tickets sold etc… They may opt out of playing if they are tired or don’t feel like it – not if they have a contract with a theatre. It amazes me how people don’t see how different the two situations are.

    And don’t give me the von Trapp family as an example! First of all they didn’t sing opera, they sang mostly folk tunes, popular songs and so on, adapted to each one’s abilities – some of them played instruments. They were a travelling family, therefore the kids were in a very safe and controlled environment, with their parents and siblings acting as coaches, impresarios and co-stars. Absolutely nothing to do with the average show business scenarios with young children being made into instant superstars.

    But the article also goes beyond opera. And, mostly thanks to talent shows, there are, more than ever, those precocious kids who sing other, usually less taxing, musical styles.
    Like 10-year old Hollie Steel, who sings appropriate, non-operatic songs like her audition number “Edelweiss” with her own beautiful child’s voice and who broke down on stage during her first audition ( Later she developed into a fine singer. Hear her Danny Boy a cappella: Although I like her very much, I cringed in seeing her onstage doing the very sensual “Phantom” duet, “Music of the night” The Phantom was the bad guy, but he was not paedophile! Very tasteless choice. The male singer had to walk away from her when he was saying the “hot” stuff.
    Or Angelina Jordan singing Billie Halliday songs like “Gloomy Sunday” ( or “Shot me down” (yes!).
    And 9-year old Adele (, Kaitlyn Maher, now about 10, who started out at 4 sounding pretty unimpressive and got somehow better, although nothing to write home about (hear her sing Let it Go: And the Bulgarian Krisia Todorova (, the 8-Year-Old Indonesian Ariani Nisma Putri who is also blind from birth (, 11-Year Old Mara Justine (…
    And Chloe Hickinbottom (10-year old) and and (Better than Jackie in my opinion, she does seem to know what she’s singing, and her voice is more mature at age 10 than Jackies at 14)

    And there are those who are career-ready:
    10-year old Natalie Okri (
    The excellent Asanda Jezile auto-dubbed “the 11-year old diva” ( at that age danced like Beyonce and appeared with makeup in the audition.
    Or Anna Christine who, at the age of 10 had a mezzo voice even when speaking, and sang about “a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun”, something she normally shouldn’t even know about. But her voice is really so mature and deep, her interpretation so amazing, that you just don’t want to be mean!

    Another example I would wish to discuss is Connie Talbot, who started at 6 years old singing “Over the Rainbow” ( and, then risking an equally unimpressive Ave Maria She went on for an international career, recordings, getting better each year This is “Let it be” from 2012 or 13 ( Listen to her here, at 12 years old, she’s quite good: Her version of “Colors of the Wind” was admirable in every way:
    I’m pointing her out because I must admit her repertoire is wisely chosen nowadays, so one could take her as an example of a well-lead career.
    These (Disney songs, songs from musicals and others not especially related to adult themes) are songs appropriate for young singer’s age and evolving vocal capabilities and I think the writer of the original article would agree with me here. Nobody expects child performers to perform “Baa Baa black sheep” as has been provocatively written by some Jackie fans.

    As a closing comment, see what impresario Simon Cowell says of child stars.

    Speaking to the US interviewer Terry Gross in her Fresh Air show, Cowell cited Jackson as a reason why children should not be entered into talent contests. “I have a problem with that. I even have a problem with people entering at 16. They’re just not ready for it. Look at Michael Jackson – take somebody in at an early age and see what happens. You lose your growing-up period. This is what happens when you go into the music industry at such an early age.

    “You say that to 11-year-olds and they’re never going to listen to you because they want to be rich and famous. But when you deprive someone of that age of their normal growing up, you really can do them serious damage, in my opinion.”

    At the time, Cowell was a judge on The X Factor, notorious for his scathing put-downs, earning him the nickname Mr Nasty. But in the interview, unearthed by Chas Newkey-Burden during research for his unauthorised biography of Cowell, the multimillionaire impresario reveals his discomfort when criticising children. “I go into this show as a grown-up and I like to treat people like grown-ups. I find it very difficult sometimes saying to a 16-year-old what I really think because they’re just not mature enough to deal with it.

    “I don’t think it benefits anybody – me, them, the audience at home.”

  49. Thank you, Irene for everything you said. I just wish that these TV talent shows would institute a minimum age requirement for entrants of 18 years of age. I cringe terribly seeing little kids being exploited. I especially cringe over the little girls trying to sing opera. As the author of this blog says, they’re “writing checks that their bodies can’t cash.” If any of them do have the potential to one day be adult opera singers, singing opera at such a young age (and as you say, even singing isolated opera arias is singing opera), is likely to ruin their voices by the time they reach adulthood. Now, how do we get the musically uneducated fans of these little kids to listen to what we say?


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