January 25th, 2014

Another child opera singer

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.

24 Responses to “Another child opera singer”

  1. Eric Says:

    Other than Amira’s singing, which is as you say it is, what struck me was she speaks idiosyncratically like an American girl in a different language.

  2. Eric Says:

    I also felt bad for the contestants listening and watching back-stage, like the one girl shown with a disbelieving look.

    Being talented, being ambitious, working hard, being encouraged, feeling hope, making it into the arena to start making dreams real … and then having THAT wake-up call dropped on your head like an anvil.

  3. T Says:

    Thanks. This is one of my favorite arias. As a contrast, neither better or worse, just different, here is Montserrat Caballe performing the same aria [you may have to refresh your screen to get these to come up]:


    and Anna Netrebko:


  4. parker Says:

    Thank you for us bringing Amira. I’m not a big opera fan, but her performance was wonderful.

  5. Ymarsakar Says:

    I hate those announcers and the intentional suspense and tension they put into the stage performance.

    Oh wait, I guess the other people call them judges.

  6. Ymarsakar Says:

    I’m not sure if the 1965s audio recording was just bad but I hate the high notes in that song but didn’t notice it at all in the modern production.

    I wonder if the audio recording peaked at a certain hertz and just sustained the tone to high harmonic vibration. But the natural human voice modulates it into a wave instead when recorded well.

  7. Tonawanda Says:

    Oh so beautiful, lovely, marvelous, the original post and T’s additions which further put it in perspective.

    A lot of gloom is dispelled in the beholding.

  8. Les Says:

    I wonder if Amira also knew a little about the context in which the song is sung – a young daughter in love with a young man, pleading with her father to help them be together.

    Oh my dear papa,
    I love him, he is handsome, handsome.
    I want to go to Porta Rossa
    To buy the ring!

    Yes, yes, I want to go there!
    And if my love were in vain,
    I would go to the Ponte Vecchio
    And throw myself in the Arno!

    I am anguished and tormented!
    Oh God, I’d like to die!
    Papa, have pity, have pity!
    Papa, have pity, have pity!

  9. Les Says:

    It may be better to view as it’s sung during a performance and you can see why no father could refuse.

    Renata Scotto:

    A more modern setting:

  10. Wolla Dalbo Says:

    I first discovered Evancho on TV a couple of years ago, and as she explains it, she apparently had no formal training but began her singing by imitating what she heard on radio and T.V., and it shows. She apparently picked a certain way of singing and a certain tone and she imitated it.

    To my ear her singing voice and tone, while it can be bell-like and beautiful, can also be fairly odd and unattractive, and is decidedly artificial, an act she puts on rather than something coming from within.

    I also find her hand motions and other body language while singing to be somewhat off as well.

  11. Eric Says:

    Wolla Dalbo: “To my ear [Evancho's] singing voice and tone, while it can be bell-like and beautiful, can also be fairly odd and unattractive, and is decidedly artificial, an act she puts on rather than something coming from within.”

    I agree. I’ve marveled at Evancho as a young girl demonstrating rare ability, but past that admiration, I’m not a fan of her singing for the reason you stated.

    In every art, there’s a difference between just displaying technical skill, which is impressive in its own right, and technical skill that conveys the soul or spirit of the art. Willighagen’s thought process may be the same as Evancho’s at the same age, but what comes out in her singing captures the latter better than Evancho’s singing.

  12. waitforit Says:

    Who’s the blond women in the middle? Obama wants another selfie!

    Yeah, boyyyyyy!

    But Neo brings up a good point, and it’s really something along the line of the incorruptibility of art. If art survives, what else does?

    The human wants to judge and degrade and promote; it must have something; so we require creators–of whom there are not enough.

    And then when we have them we lose them through obtuse worship and abuse. But then we lose each other and ourselves.

    It’s all death. Death I tells ya!

  13. Ymarsakar Says:

    Technical skill is for manifesting the reality of an artist’s soul and imagination.

    There is no individual soul in an art, it’s a mis- perception.

    The crucial difference rests in whether the production is a copy of another person’s originality, or whether the product is legitimately an original. But any differentiation between what society considers the art and what an individual considers their art, the importance is always on the latter, the producer not the consumer, to determine hard limits.

  14. waitforit Says:

    Y, you’re funny and sad and misleading.

    You just want talk some shit you obviously know nothing about.

    Everything starts out as a copy with us humans. Originality? It happens by accident, because of love, of worship, of something, but that accident is art at its highest, and when you see it, you know it. It’s not the accomplished performance. That incorporates the Moment. No. it’s the foundation multiplied by the soul at that Moment when the soul masters the form in its own voice. It is all soul.

    You have exposed yourself, Mr. Robot, Mr. Want to Have IT but doesn’t. Sorry. It happens by accident. Can’t make it happen.

    Scrub. But welcome to Us, the world of not genius, of not Moment, of living by character.

  15. davisbr Says:

    Thank you Neo.

    How captivating …your post made my evening.

    That she can sing those arias at all with such authority is amazing.

    But that she displays artistic depth too, is …I dunno. Startling? Breathtaking? At the least, immensely – and pleasantly – satisfying.

    And the performance! The judges mentioned “old soul”. Works for me.

    I closed my eyes a couple of times while listening, and the picture that sprang to mind of the singer was most decidedly not that of a 9 year old neophyte operatic soprano.

    I watched several variations and performances available on Youtube, including all four songs.

    She was uniformly poised, enthusiastic, and utterly, utterly charming. Definitely a 9 year old lol.

    But a diva to be, I hope.

    And …old soul. Yeah.

    Such talent.


  16. Eric Says:

    After replying to Wolla Dalbo, I went back to youtube to pull up some of Evancho’s performances from America’s Got Talent (when she was 10) and now (13/14).

    One, it seems Amira either has borrowed from Evancho’s style and mannerisms on stage, or they’re conventions for young-girl opera singers.

    Off stage, their interviewing styles at ages 9 and 10 are different. While Amira seems comfortable and practiced as though she’s used to interacting with adult authority types about her singing and has put some thought into it, Evancho is more canned and polished in her responses, as though she’s a trained veteran of the beauty pageant circuit.

    Two, their similarities in style and mannerisms on stage actually highlight their singing differences in comparison. Evancho is talented and has improved markedly since she competed on America’s Got Talent, but her singing then and now is more strained and effortful in comparison. Amira’s singing seems more effortless and natural, and smoother in comparison.

    As Wolla Dalbo said, Evancho gives more of an artificial impression. Amira gives more of a natural impression. The reality may be they both train equally hard and their training inputs are similar, but I get the impression it just comes easier for Amira than Evancho. It’s easier to listen to Amira sing.

  17. Eric Says:

    Add: Another way to say it is Evancho seems more like a conscientious by-the-numbers type of performer while Amira seems more like an intuitive performer.

  18. Ymarsakar Says:

    waitforit, I don’t know who you are.

  19. waitforit Says:

    Y, you don’t know who I am?

    So. So. SO. SOOO!

    I wonder if you, at times, are just testing a super duper spam generator. Because there’s just enough to maybe invoke a proposition worth pursuing, but there’s more than enough to hint not.

    Your comment is obviously contradictory and not in an ironic way.

    For example, your first statement asserts there is the reality of an artist’s soul. Then your next statement asserts there is no such thing. And then you conclude that it’s the artist (producer?) which is important.

    Very nonsensical. Was that your intent? Kind of a scientific poetry? Poetry production?

    Tell you what. You write me a poem that at least attempts to follow some conventions. Then I’ll know who you are. I should say that if you require an introduction, you should first introduce yourself.

  20. T Says:

    BTW, my wife (who teaches voice) and my prospective son-in-law who is an operatic tenor both agree that this kind of adult-voiced performance in young and pre-pubescent children is especially harmful to their voices.

    My personal expansion of that thought is that this is what happens when one sees their child as a walking ATM rather than a child. Michael Jackson, Justin Bieber anyone?

  21. Maggie's Farm Says:

    Tuesday morning links…

    If I can’t accept you at your worst, then maybe you should stop being so horrible Another child opera singer When Doing Good Means You’re Bad – Charitable giving ought to be something we applaud—but in some cases it gets exactly the opposite rea…

  22. Ymarsakar Says:


    I get the sense that you think you have something important to say. However, since I doubt you have the position to judge or the talent to do so, why do you think you’re in a position to tell anyone anything?

    What purpose does that serve, are you able to judge that perchance?

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