Last week I wrote a post about child opera singers. I spread it to a few places and got some strong reactions. Both here, on LinkedIn and my Facebook fan page. Some defending the phenomena and some fiercely against. Of course I also got my fair share of accusations of being mean, a self proclaimed expert and envious since I did not receive scholarships from all over the place at age 9.
What strikes me in this whole discussion is that few talk about what happens to a child that gets to carry the burdens and hopes of a whole culture. Millions of people referring to them as angels. Almost savors. I mentioned Jackie Evancho and Amira Willighagen before. Charlotte Church is yet another.
The Desire For Approval
The young and cute Amira is not talking about how she wants to give condolences and happiness to people. Nope. She talks about having a ton of fans and getting tons of applauds. She hopes the jury will like her. She wants confirmation and approval. She has learned from TV that true confirmation is what you get when a set of judges say your awesome and people scream and stand up after you’ve sung.
How do other little girls feel when they sit at home watching this circus? Happy? Content? Good enough? Apparently not. Otherwise Amira would have been satisfied with being a princess in a sparkling dress and a tiara from any toy store. No, today you must be hailed by thousands. You must have records made and sell by the millions. Not until then are you a real princess. Not until then are you good enough.
What About The Looser’s?
No one ever mentions all those girls that starry eyed come to the competition with hopes like Amira’s. Television, fan clubs, magazine articles… and then fail miserably. What happens to them? To their self-esteem, self worth and future capacity to love themselves without judgement? What happens with their talent and love of music? No one starts crying out of joy. No YouTube cannel with new fans and new views and new comments with thumbs up every other minute. Will they search for approval in vain all their lives? No one knows. And no one seems to give it a thought.
Vocal Child Beauty Pageants
So there they are. Like some kind of vocal Child Beauty Pageants. Tiny girls singing these very grown up texts of love, horror, horniness, death and the beauty of it all. Loving till the end of time. Come what may. Nessun dorma – nella tua fredda stanza. Oh, Dio, vorrei morrir; Ombra mai fu.
We’ve had many child stars through time. For some it went well. For others a disaster. But is it only the singing that takes it’s toll? Or is it something graver? Something on a deeper, much deeper level?
I absolutely think children should sing. Participating in a children’s part in an opera is a great thing. It’s this new idea that little girls placed in front of a jury suddenly are “opera singers” that bothers me. I find it unfair. Painful. Not only vocally but from a standpoint of responsibility.
In one of my comments in my previous post I say ”I see cultural expressions as a kind of catharsis. A way to uplift you and give you strength. But also help to flush out the garbage. To act like a dustbin or a sewer in a sense. A society without art will not survive but choke from it’s own disposals!”
Most people get hung up on what happens to the vocal cords. Hmm… Isn’t what happens on a larger scale to a small child in front of 2000 roaring people equally bad? Or worse?
What happens when you come out on the other side of miracle child? Puberty is not always the most flattering period in life. You know sex hormones does things to your body, your face and your voice. It throws you out of adorable into awkward. It can be brutal!
Suddenly you have to perform out of your own accord. Now you can’t ride on cuteness anymore. You have to originally create when life sucks.
Singing when you feel wonderful is no big thing. Singing when you just got your period, got dumped and sat in a draught the night before is no joke! I mean all three at the same time!
A Conference On Music
I had already started to write my first post when I attended a conference on the role of music in society. Two of the lecturers gave me food for analysis and confirmation on my own trail of thought.
One, Jan Sverre Knudsen PhD , had a compelling reflection on how music had been used in conjunction with the terrible killings in Norway at Utöya. Both by the killer and for consolation of the population.
The other speaker, Dr. Eva Sæther talked about West African history keepers. She hit a cord in me and afterwards we had a conversation on how music can be a burden for the performer. She totally got me when I aired my concerns about children stepping up to such a grand responsibility. Because it IS a responsibility to give the audience what it wants.
The Story Tellers Of Western Africa
Every society needs story tellers. And every culture have them.
Words set to music carries the history of West African culture. It became clear to me that classical singers in some aspects fill the same role as the Jali. Jali are women and men responsible for recalling and referring history of land and individuals for the benefit of all.
It takes many, many years to become a master Jali. They start out as children. Learning the trait of this honorable position from masters. A position handed to them by the Divine powers. They organize ancient knowledge through observation, memorization, assimilation, imitation, practice and more observation in a seemingly endless cycle to become creators. Emerged in tacit knowledge for decades until they are about 40 and can mantel the role of master themselves.
The Jali have a massive responsibility in society. It covers amongst other things:
What About The Classical Singer?
Classical singers recall and tell the history of our western society. Stories and tales that spans over Egyptian history , Greek mythology, and everything from biblical themes to Joan of Arc burning at the stake and a lady with a beard.
We cover the inquisition, French revolution, trans gender issues, the triumphs of war, the oppressions of slavery. We get to know escaping couples, girls committing suicide, abandoned prostitutes, cruel dictators, lonely rulers, quarreling siblings, passionate artists, witty widows, jealous rivals and dead men walking on the death row.
It’s and endless stream of love, sex, murder, betrayal, hope, rape, reverence, revenge, recollections, romance, torture, despair and much, much, much more.
Every sin, every expression, every lie, every good deed and emotion available is exposed and enlarged times a godzillion in stories set to music through voice. Music so intense it brings chills and tears. Occasionally we laugh too.
The instrument to bring those stories to the people has to be sturdy! To have little girls singing might look very innocent. Yet the vibration of what is said within those tunes is strong!
This is our history!
Here is where my notion of unfairness comes in. The insult to both children and grown ups. This is our history! Don’t try to skimp it over by letting innocent girls take on the burden of what it’s all about. It looks like they are only giving. But in reality they also receive massive undercover energy from every person in the audience!
Either don’t tell the stories (A rather good idea, but that is another set of blog posts altogether. Perhaps another blog even) or let the people that can handle the pressure do it. That means people with experience from life. Those that have gone through the ”Come what may”.
Step Up And Step Out
I know from myself that I do my best job when I sing the sad songs. An endless lament brings the best out of me. It took me some 15 years to figure that one out. With those songs I can take on some of the burden from the audience for a short while. Perhaps it’s because my life has not been easy. I’ve carried myself through hard times. I can relate. I can hold up a mirror to let them know they are not all by themselves. They can get out of there. As I did.
The question is, are children ready to meet up and connect? Or does it become a weight they don’t know how to handle? I don’t mean they necessarily get to hear stories but, as with the Jali, a grown up has an invisible ear based on experience. Not intuition.
Sometimes we hear ”Opera is dead”. I don’t think so. I think society needs you, the mature singer. I think you have an obligation, a duty to sing and get in front of people telling old stories in a new way. And new stories with old music. Stories for grown ups, told by grown ups.
It’s not about being famous. There is an audience waiting for you. People that need to relate to what you have to say. If there are ”only” 2000 people out there, ready for your expression, don’t they deserve to have you step forward? Of course they do!
If you are a singer wondering what to do next, feel free to contact me. You are important and if I can, I would be happy to help you sort through what can be done for you to step up and step out on your stage .
The Crusifixion by Samuel Barber sung by Stella Scott