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Children in Opera: Wearing Adults’ Shoes?

10 Jul 2014

Jackie Evancho

Nessun dorma!
Il nome suo nessun saprà…
E noi dovrem, ahimè, morir, morir!

Death, horror, eternal love, tragedy and beauty – all this usually makes part of a classical opera as we know it. But what if all this drama is conveyed by a tiny 9 year old kid on stage?

In the last years, there have appeared a lot of ‘music sensation’ titles on the Internet featuring children singing classical masterpieces – the prodigy opera performers of young age. The 10 year old Jackie Evancho amazes America's Got Talent jury with a splendid performance of Ave Maria, the 11 year old Clark Rubinstein is called “the little Caruso from Boston” and is giving a solo concert singing in 7 languages; and the 9 year old Dutch girl Amira Willighagen records a full-length album of operatic arias, including Nessun Dorma ‘with Luciano Pavarotti’.

Watching these little tender stars singing such powerful arias no doubt WOWs the wide public offhand. But to look a bit deeper into the matter – is it appropriate for a kid to take up the adult repertoire of this kind?

History already remembers a few examples of such early talents. Let’s take the 1999 case of the 12 year old Charlotte Church, a girl who managed to hit the highest notes in a fierce fascinating manner that immediately conquered the listener. Or a much earlier example of the 15 year old Anna Gottlieb who in 1787 sang Barbarina from The Marriage of Figaro, and two years later – Pamina from The Magic Flute by Mozart. Sadly, the stories of these children who could sing far beyond their real age didn’t end very well. Having matured, the voice of Charlotte lost its power and luster, and Anna got bogged down in poverty when her voice finally broke.

So why didn’t the girls proceed in glory and success when they grew up? Unfortunately, too often a prodigy kid’s interests are not at all at heart. The phenomenal singing of an innocent child is not only impressive and exciting but can be exceptionally profitable in many ways. And too often adults (including the parents of the kids) do not understand that this fame and profit puts child’ physical and mental health at stake. Opera is a serious music genre that requires a lot of hard work, experience and understanding, it is not just deep-throated singing. Of course, both Jackie and Amira can sing beautifully, but can a child like that have a real idea of what opera is and perform it with actual understanding of the text?

According to the professor of psychology at Boston College, Ellen Winner, kids who have been pushed into adult activities like that are often deprived of real childhood and skip the important transitional period they need. In the future, such a child can be psychologically wounded once he/she realizes that he/she is grown and not ‘special’ anymore. Not mentioning the physical side of the whole process, when the delicate child’s throat and voice can be permanently damaged and broken for good. One might compare children opera singers with little weightlifters lifting heavy iron for someone else’s wow, entertainment or profit.

On the other hand, would we know of Mozart if he as a little kid hadn’t been pushed for practicing and carried all over Europe in concerts? But wait a minute, voice wasn’t Mozart’s instrument. If a prodigy child performer’s, say, piano is broken, another one could replace it. Unfortunately, that’s not what could be done to a kid’s voice.

But what if the child is really good? Should parents prevent him/her from singing some extra? No way – let them sing! Provided the child develops naturally under the supervision of music experts, with vocal chords regularly examined and proper training chosen relevant to the age (Amira is a self-taught YouTube girl, by the way). Why put them in oversized shoes that could shatter their walk. Let the kids be kids, after all?

Jackie Evancho, Amira Willighagen, Putri Ayu singing Nessun Dorma.

Photos: "Jackie Evancho" by Justin Higuchi. Source:

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