The proliferation of TV programs that feature amateur singing competitions has brought out a swarm of child singers. Some of them even sing opera with remarkable maturity, something that usually is reserved for the grownups among us, and a select few grownups at that.
You’ve probably heard of Jackie Evancho, one of the earliest of the famous child opera singers. All of them tend to have a sweet solemnity that belies their years (and our times) and make them seem throwbacks to another era. In a piece I wrote about Evancho when she first burst on the scene, I quoted a singing authority on how a child is able to make that surprisingly adult sound:
Carol Tingle is a Los Angeles-area voice teacher who has been instructing private students since 1966. “Technically what’s she’s doing is lowering her larynx to get that opera sound. Singers are incredible imitators of sound. It wouldn’t surprise me if she hasn’t listened to many opera singers, so what she’d be able to do is adjust the larynx and imitate the sound she is hearing either recording or by her coach.”
All children imitate their heroes, whether it’s basketball or singing. A good teacher will make sure pupils channel that enthusiasm into finding their own style. In Evancho’s case, her teacher has an additional challenge: safeguarding that voice.
The same is true for Holland’s Amira Willighagen—except when the 9-year-old appeared on “Holland’s Got Talent” this past fall (she won the whole thing just a couple of weeks ago), she said she’d never had a singing teacher. I’ll bet she’s got one now.
Willighagen is an imitator—she learned how to sing opera from YouTube, after all—but she is no parrot. The thing that strikes me most about her is her delicate and sensitive musicality. Although her voice is not fully developed (there’s a minor crack here and there), her artistry is firmly in place:
Why do I put these videos up? I find them encouraging signs of—something, maybe just the idea that art lives on, if young children can still aspire to this particular kind of effort. It doesn’t seem that anybody forced Amira. She just surfed YouTube and came up with “O Mio Babbino Caro” herself.
Several people in the YouTube comments section, as well as one of the judges, have compared her voice quality to that of Maria Callas. I know very little about opera, although of course I’ve heard of Callas and seen a few videos of her, mostly of the harsher, very dramatic Callas. But YouTube allowed me to find this:
My guess is that Amira listened to Callas quite a lot when she was learning the song. Note that Callas isn’t just singing but acting, too, which was her forte.