In the popular imagination, opera arias have become a vehicle for all that is moving and beautiful – as long as they’re not sung in an opera house. People who would go to some lengths to avoid attending a performance of Puccini’s “Turandot” or “Gianni Schicchi” fall all over themselves at the arias “Nessun dorma” (now an obligatory vehicle for all male singers , and some female ones ) and “O mio babbino caro” (which fulfills the same role for young sopranos ) – when those arias are encountered on the variety stages of shows about the talent pool of various countries. Dissociated from all vestiges of their original meaning or style, these arias have become a meme, a vehicle for a certain kind of popular crossover pseudo-operatic sound .
It happens every so often that one of these singers , singing one of these arias, strikes a chord in the popular imagination and goes viral and becomes beloved of all but a handful of people like me who take on the role of sour-faced purists as we try to explain that the singer in question is doing it all wrong and the aria is capable of communicating so much more when it is sung with real vocal technique and an actual understanding of the words. We “purists” can get quite passionate about this , and many people come away from such diatribes with the idea that we are nasty people who enjoy being mean to little girls – except for those who gleefully pile on and take our arguments even farther, claiming that such performances represent the decline of art, taste, and even civilization. All of this stirs up such a tangle of comment – and comment is, today, a universal measure of success – that some people seem to go out of their way to invoke flashpoint names, like Jackie Evancho , whenever a chance presents itself. (Evancho, incidentally, also burst onto the scene with a performance of “O mio babbino caro” on “America’s Got Talent.” )
Today’s sensation, as the above video attests, is a 9-year-old girl named Amira Willighagen, who on the show Holland’s Got Talent a few days ago sang “O mio babbino caro” with all of the heart and soul a nine-year-old can muster and then some. How can I criticize this performance? I can’t criticize a little girl whose imagination was captivated enough by something about this music, or this song, that she put the energy into learning it. I certainly can’t speculate on the involvement of her parents, though attributing malign motivation to putative stage parents is a common trope when these kinds of prodigy appear. I won’t lecture the child on how she is sure to ruin her voice if she sings in this particular way, because honestly, if she does care enough about singing eventually to pursue voice lessons, she will figure out what she needs to do, and if she doesn’t, it doesn’t really matter.
I can observe, with curiosity, that this kind of deep-throated singing, and precocious showmanship, appears to have a certain appeal to the prepubescent set; I don’t know where it comes from, but I think Jackie Evancho is more a symptom than a cause; I believe there are a number of cases of little girls these days who work to make sounds well beyond their years. I find it fascinating that this particular aesthetic has enough appeal to reach young girls. We are concerned, with abundant reason, about the hypersexualization to which prepubescent girls are exposed, but learning opera arias at too early an age does not seem quite as sinister a manifestation of this as skimpy clothes or lipstick or suggestive twerking poses in selfies. At least it shows an interest in music, albeit music as a vehicle: that is, when a nine-year-old perfectly mimes adult performance, she is focusing on something slightly different than a nine-year-old who is working on her scales.
Some of my opera-loving readers will chime in, at this juncture, that this isn’t music; that her phrasing is awful; that she, like so many other singers, has turned one of the most enjoyably manipulative comic arias in the repertory into what she clearly believes opera is supposed to be: something tragic and passionate about love and death. (The aria’s actual lyrics run along the lines of “Oh, dearest daddy, I so much want to marry my boyfriend that if you don’t let me buy a wedding ring I’ll jump in the river, please let me daddy, pretty please,” but the Italian words “vorrei morir” (I want to die) and “pieta, pieta” (have pity) tend to mislead non-Italian speakers into thinking the piece is rather more dire than it is.) Well and good, but we’ve trodden this ground so many times before that there’s almost no point in going into it again.
For me, the most poignant thing about this video isn’t the singing, but the moment when the little girl finishes the aria and stands, almost shell-shocked, with a slightly dazed grin, in the storm of applause. The moment documents a loss of innocence: the point at which your reflection in your bedroom mirror as you sing into your hairbrush dissolves into a real-world crowd, shouting that they want to hear you more. Amira Willighagen may be a flash in the pan, she may start giving stadium concerts, she may mature into a well-rounded artist; and whatever the world makes of her – and the comments on the video have already started to draw up lines between the “innocent angel” and the “ruining her voice” camps – is eminently not her fault. But in the immediate future, her encounters with the world will be colored by the experience of this first, rapturous reception.