The Adventures of Supermaren

Stories and musings as I bumble around life

Prodigy (or, why I don’t like Jackie Evancho)

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Last fall, I was shopping for a fabulous diva dress at a well-known bridal chain, and the sales lady was helping me go through gown after gown after gown. Finally, curiosity got the better of her, and she asked me what event I was going to attend.

I told her that I was going to be a soloist at the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem.

She had a blank look on her face.

“I’m an opera singer,” I explained. “So I need a dress that makes me look like a diva.”

“Oh, an opera singer!” she exclaimed. “You mean like Jackie Evancho?”

My heart sank. “Um, not really,” I said. “But if it helps you to think of it that way, then yes.”

Jackie Evancho

We classical singers get a lot of that: well-meaning, but completely ignorant comparisons to whatever pop-opera crossover sensation is in vogue. My coloratura friends get a lot of “You sound just like Sarah Brightman,” even though they don’t realize Brightman’s high E in Phantom of the Opera was brief and digitally enhanced on the recording, or that Brightman’s career as an opera singer has been limited to playing the ROLE of an opera singer in that musical. As for me, people don’t know any famous mezzos, so they just pick a name that they’ve heard recently — like Jackie Evancho or Charlotte Church, or even Josh Groban.

Now, before we get too far in this post, let me state that I think there is nothing at all wrong with the pop/opera crossover genre. I personally don’t like it, but I also don’t like most country music, gangsta rap, or bluegrass. Groups like Il Divo and individuals like Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli have done very well for themselves in this genre, and there are plenty of people who are willing to throw their money at the marketing machines that follow them around. More power to them. I wish I had a staff of 20 to do all my PR for me.

What really upsets me is when those folks set their sights on a little girl.

Jackie Evancho is a very cute girl. She is well-behaved and knows how to conduct herself in on television and radio (as I discovered while driving to rehearsal one day, listening to Michelle Norris interview her for All Things Considered. Shame on you, NPR, for buying into this fraud. Although, maybe I should thank you: you are the reason I’m ranting right now). Evancho is only 11 years old, and she has been thrust into the spotlight very quickly. Even she admits she spends more time on a plane or a bus than at home, and that can’t be healthy from a psychological perspective.

But let’s put all the psychological stuff aside for a moment. We all know growing up in the spotlight is difficult. Some people can hack it (Shirley Temple, Ron Howard); some people can’t (Corey Haim, the Olsen twins). I don’t know where Jackie falls in that equation, and frankly, the emotional effect of her fame doesn’t worry me nearly as much as the physical effects.

The human voice takes a long time to mature. One of the reasons babies can make such excruciatingly high sounds is that their vocal cords are tiny and thin (think of the difference in size between oboe reeds and bassoon reeds; the ones that make higher pitches are smaller and thinner). As we grow, our vocal mechanism changes shape and becomes less elastic, and the sounds we can produce are rounder and fuller. You don’t have to hear trained opera singers to find the difference in sound; just listen to the difference in sound between the speaking voice of a 16-year-old versus a 30-year-old. That maturity comes with age. It’s a physiological phenomenon; it has nothing to do with talent.

Which brings me back to Jackie Evancho. The remarkable thing about her is that this mature-sounding voice is coming out of the body of a cute little girl. What nobody realizes is that she is achieving that effect by modifying her voice to mimic the sound that she thinks everyone wants to hear. The sounds she is producing are not the sounds that any 11-year-old would make without modification. And while there is nothing really wrong with modification on occasion, too much can cause serious damage to her voice.

Here is a video of her singing “Nessun dorma” (a tenor aria from Turandot by Puccini. It has been transposed down a minor third so that she can hit the high notes)

Watch the full episode. See more Great Performances.

Take a look at her mouth when she sings. Her lower lip and jaw are wobbling, which is a classic sign of tension in the neck. If she was producing these sounds naturally, there would be no tension at all. Charlotte Church also had a huge jaw wobble, and she just got worse and worse and worse until it impinged on her cuteness and people just stopped hiring her.

The other thing that bothers me about her singing this kind or repertoire is that it is so clearly not suited to her. This aria is sung by Prince Calaf, as he vows to conquer the tyrant queen Turandot with his love. Here is the translation:

Nobody shall sleep!…
Nobody shall sleep!
Even you, o Princess,
in your cold room,
watch the stars,
that tremble with love and with hope.
But my secret is hidden within me,
my name no one shall know…
No!…No!…
On your mouth I will tell it when the light shines.
And my kiss will dissolve the silence that makes you mine!…
(No one will know his name and we must, alas, die.)
Vanish, o night!
Set, stars! Set, stars!
At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!

Now you tell me: is that a song that an 11-year-old girl should be singing? Do you think, watching that video, that she has any idea what this song is about?

If Jackie’s long-term dream is to be a singer for the rest of her life, she should quit touring right now (but save her agent’s phone number!), go back home and back to school, study music history and music theory, learn about math and grammar and philosophy and biology, study languages (French, German, and Italian at the very least), and when she’s grown into her proper voice, THEN kickstart her career back into motion.

Because the path she’s on right now has a huge potential for ending in disaster. And all the well-meaning, ignorant people of the world are helping her down that path.

Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments.


This post was featured on Studio 30+, an online magazine for bloggers over the age of 30. I got a bunch of comments from one big Jackie Evancho fan, which I tried to rebut as nicely as possible (and hey, he complimented me at the end, so he can’t be all that bad). You can read those comments here.

Someone on Twitter also slammed me for being hypocritical (I started singing at age 7 myself, at the San Francisco Girls Chorus! And my San Francisco Opera Company debut was at age 10 in Werther. I had one line, “Merci,” which I sang to Renata Scotto, but it was enough to get my name in the program). So perhaps I should clarify: I don’t have a problem with children learning how to sing and getting performance experience. My problem is with Jackie’s extremely unnatural vocal technique, as detailed above.

I’d love to hear from some other singers in the comments, too. I know you’re out there! Don’t be shy.

I know I could go back and forth ad nauseam with anyone whose admiration for Jackie Evancho transcends the desire to actually listen to what I have to say…and really, I don’t expect Jackie and her parents to change what they are doing. Why should they? They’re making way too much money. I just feel the need to feebly shake my fist at the reality-star obsessed society we live in. By exalting the mimicry that Jackie Evancho produces, we negate all the years of training and experience people like me go through to produce a legitimately natural sound. Jackie isn’t the first of her kind, nor will she be the last. But I sure wish NPR and PBS wouldn’t showcase her.

  • Dldeprez

    Ditto per Trink65, using me as an example. I have spent hours this week reading articles about the intense competition aspiring singers endure to become affiliated with the Met. My only question is, if you discovered at the age of 8 that you were gifted with the voice of Jackie Evancho, what would you do?

  • http://www.supermaren.com Supermaren

    I think you’re missing the point of the post. Jackie’s “gift” comes from her ability to mimic the sound a mature voice makes. The sound you hear her making is a modification of her natural voice, but it’s not the sound that she would be making if she was relaxed and using her voice and breath efficiently. Unless she was born with a fully-formed vocal mechanism, (which clearly isn’t clear because her neck is not grotesquely disproportional), there is no physical way that is her natural voice.

    What a lot of people don’t realize is that the voice, unlike other instruments, change and grow with age. A pianist will never have to relearn where the keys are on a piano, even though their fingers may grow longer. Jackie may be very advanced intellectually and emotionally, but she is still not advanced enough PHYSICALLY to be compared to a mature opera singer. And that’s what bugs me: when people compare an 11-year-old with an immature voice to a 30-year-old singer who has not only gone through puberty, but whose larynx has matured.

    When I was 8, I discovered I could mimic the sound of a tenor doing a stereotypical hook up to a high note. It sounded uncannily like a real operatic tenor. I was already a part of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and my teachers gave me no special attention for my mimicry than I deserved — that is, they laughed the first couple of times I did it, and then they ignored it because they knew and I knew that it was just a neat trick.

  • Jj3435

    I completely agree with you! I am a 13 year old singer studying opera and I also think it is best for her to relax her voice and grow up to be a great adult and look back to her childhood and not regret quitting. That is the smart decision. What are you doing in your opera career and when did you start studying? What college did you go to and what did you major in? What part are you?

  • http://www.supermaren.com Supermaren

    I’m so glad you’re studying opera! I’m a mezzo-soprano, and I sing with all sorts of companies, most notably the Opera Company of Philadelphia.

    As I mentioned in the post, I was exposed to opera very early on, through the San Francisco Girls Chorus. I was at SFGC from age 7 to age 13, and through them I learned a great deal about musicianship, proper breathing technique, music theory, and languages. When I was in high school, I continued private voice lessons, and my teacher encouraged me to enter local competitions. Most of the competitions carry cash prizes, and when I won them, my parents deposited the money into a college savings account.

    I went to New England Conservatory and Tufts University as a part of their double-degree program (I majored in vocal performance at NEC and drama at Tufts). I am really glad that I did the double-degree program, even though it was really intense at times, because I got a top-notch liberal arts education as well as a top-notch conservatory education, and I think it allowed me to explore my non-musical interests with depth.

    Most of my friends did summer apprenticeship programs in college; I, unfortunately, could not afford to do those programs, so my road to success is a little less orthodox. I worked at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, VA for a summer, where I learned the hard way about what happens when you sing consistently with a modified voice — I started to develop the beginnings of nodes on my vocal cords. Luckily, I had a good doctor, and I caught it really early on, so I was able to heal fairly quickly. I paid a great deal more attention to my technique after that.

    After that, it was just year after year of freelance singing that got me to where I am. I moved to New York, auditioned a lot, and met a lot of important people who helped me along with my career. I think the two biggest keys to success are networking and professional consistency. The more people see that you are a hard worker and easy to work with, the more likely they are to hire you and recommend you to their friends.

    Good luck! And never stop loving the music.

  • Guest

    I truly appreciate hearing the ‘other side of the story’ from someone who is professionally trained. I am among the throng who think Jackie E. sings beautifully, but, would certainly hate to see her destroy her voice and her future prospects because of ignorance. All we can do is hope that someone with knowledge and care is in charge of her voice and that they will not EXPLOIT it. Even though I am not  educated in ‘The Ways of Opera’ – I do love to listen for the beauty of it. Actually, I enjoy country music just as well. I enjoy listening to anyone who can sing and play a musical instrument well – since I can no neither.  As a previous poster mentioned – MOST people listen to what ‘touches’ them and moves them. Whatever genre.  

  • Anonymous

    I agree with most of what you say here. I’m a music lover, I like of many types of music including true opera and I sing myself.  It feels creepy to me to hear an adult like voice coming out of a child’s body and your take on the physical aspects confirm that this is not natural. While I think she has a beautiful voice, I don’t think her voice is mature at all and it can be damaged as you say. That was my first thought since my vocal teacher told me that most opera singers don’t start training until they’re in their 20′s in order not to do damage.  I also don’t feel any of her interpretations have the same emotional depth of any mature or great singer of any genre. That is what I would expect from an 11 year old who is developing in so many ways. I feel it’s wrong for her to be doing this at this age for many reasons. She has made a debut, she should take a break now and wait until her voice is really ready to be trained.

  • Anonymous

    Apparently she is not singing live without a backtrack, or her voice has been accompanied or aided in some way also. So it may have been altered to sound more adult like.

    http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100812180144AA7hJsZ

  • http://www.supermaren.com Supermaren

    I actually disagree with the lip-synching theory. As a singer myself, I am positive she would NOT have the jaw wobble if she was lip synching…and also, she would never be able to match up her wobble to her vibrato so perfectly if it weren’t being produced by her own body. And I also never said that it was impossible for an 11-year-old to mimic an adult; I have only maintained that the sound isn’t her natural, 11-year-old voice.

    I saw a brief promo of her trip to London, which had a 10-second clip of her doing warm-ups with her vocal coach. Even the one simple scale she sang a cappella was way in the back of her throat (even though her coach was trying to get her to sing further forward). Most artists who lip-synch do so because of the large amount of dancing they do…and with Evancho, that’s not the case.

    However, I have never heard her live, and there are lots and lots of things that can be done through audio compression these days. Her sound through the microphone is smoother than any live voice could be, so it’s highly possible there is some digital manipulation happening in the editing process, to get rid of some of the bobbles that happen to all of us as we sing. But nothing digital could make that adult sound. All that manipulation is happening in the back of Jackie’s throat.

  • Guest

    i completely disagree – her voice sounds beautiful, and her phrasing is fantastic.  She seems to have an incredibly deep relationship with the music she sings.  I don’t think that 11 year olds should only sing about balloons, barney, and ice cream cake.  She seems to understood the emotional content of the words too.  This will probably help her to mature more quickly as a person.  She brings many people around the world a lot of joy including me.  She seems to be on the path that she, as the individual that she is, should be on

  • Chaos_cat82

    I first encountered Jackie Evancho’s singing when she sang the Rockefellar Tree lighting ceremony. It instantly grabbed my attention. Something about her singing resonates inside. It elicits an emotional reaction. I ended up looking her up on youtube and eventually buying her Christmas cd. I would like to get the newer cd but am not working currently. She seems to have an impressive range of song types, and seems rather popular appearing on some shows every so often. It is remarkable an operaic or angelic voice comes forth from one so young, even going backwards in age on youtube it’s remarkable how good she is for one her age. From what I read here, it seems it’s postulated that she mimics the sound of an adult singer..but if the sound comes from her, and there is no person she is copying, then indeed, she is credited with singing it that way on her own.

  • http://www.supermaren.com Supermaren

    Yes, Jackie makes those sounds on her own. I’m not implying that she is lip-synching or anything like that. When someone does an impression of a famous person or character — let’s take Kermit the Frog, for example, because that’s a very distinct voice that is created in the back of the throat — that person is creating that sound by himself/herself. But the sound he/she creates is not the natural sound he/she uses in everyday life. Similarly, Jackie is creating a sound that is modified from her natural voice. She is modifying her voice to sound a certain way because that is what she knows everyone expects. She may even think it IS her natural voice. But it’s not; it’s bad vocal technique, and unless she starts correcting her bad habits now, she will pay for it with a very short-lived career.

  • Raphael

    SupermarenHere is a post from a vocal expert

    Pericon Fri 10/08/10 1:28 PM

    Actually, someone with a music degree might say that Jackie,
    together with her abundance of natural talent is practicing elements of
    the Bel Canto technique of singing. That “creepy” sound you hear is the
    result of singing with the full strength that proper breathing and
    breath control provides. Watch her breathing in her AGT videos- her
    dress actually raises up four inches off the ground, no small feat for
    someone only about 4 foot tall. Then notice how her shoulders don’t rise
    nearly so much. Her diaphragm harnesses all that air into her very
    core. Pop singers sing with their mouths and upper chest only which
    results in a thin, tight sound. Controlled diaphragmatic breathing allows
    Jackie to project her voice resulting a rich and full sound. Diaphragmatic
    control also allows her to fully relax her upper cavity which allows
    her to hit very high notes effortlessly. Pop singers have to do the
    opposite which means tightening their throats and straining their vocal
    cords, limiting the fullness of sound and damaging their voice. This is
    why a pop singer’s voice fails after a relatively short career while an
    opera singer can astound audiences for decades. There is nothing
    “creepy” about Jackie’s ability or the amazing sound that she produces.
    It has everything to do with what Bel Canto (beautiful singing) is all
    about.
    Jackie still has much to learn, much more technique to master and her
    body is still developing. Still, we are witnessing the very beginning of
    what might well be the finest vocalist of our time
    http://music-mix.ew.com/2010/10/08/jackie-evancho/

  • http://www.supermaren.com Supermaren

    1. Who is Pericon? How do you know that he/she is a vocal expert? Pericon is correct about Bel Canto technique, but neglects to point out that prepubescent voices are more elastic than adult voices. As she grows and the hormones start appearing in her system, her vocal mechanism will be changing rapidly, and the technique she is using now will not help her; in fact, it may hurt her (note how her jaw wobbles as a sign of the tension in her neck). Bel canto technique is for post-pubescent voices.

    2. I do agree with the sentence: “Jackie still has much to learn, much more technique to master, and her body is still developing.” If she makes it through puberty with her voice intact, after doing the kind of singing she is doing at such a fast pace, then maybe I’ll change my mind about her. But until then, I see her as a very cute little girl who has captured the hearts of many well-meaning people who don’t understand the difference between talent and maturity.

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