As someone who runs a teen opera program, I’ve been asked pretty often recently for my opinion on America’s Got Talent’s teen singer, Laura Bretan, who has been wowing audiences with her interpretations of popular opera arias by Puccini as well as “pop classical” standards like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu” and “The Prayer,” a song with so many writers credited, I developed a cramp while attempting to type all their names here. If that sounds a bit snarky, I will admit to not being a particular fan of the genre, nor its big names, such as Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman (though Josh Groban’s hilarious stage banter will always have a place in my heart). It’s simply not my thing, and I generally don’t take note of that genre’s emerging artists, a category which most certainly now includes Laura Bretan.
The thing that sets Laura Bretan apart, of course, along with previous TV talent-show contestants like Jackie Evancho and Charlotte Church, is that she’s not an adult, and that’s when concerned voice teachers worldwide (like me) feel entitled to voice our alarm over her technique, her repertoire choices, and the adults in her life who are surely neglecting her long-term vocal health in pursuit of fame and profit. I’m being a bit snarky here as well, for though I am one of those concerned voices, I also realize that this whole matter is, to a great extent, none of our business. We are not Laura Bretan’s parents or guardians, and we are not part of the corporate music world that created “pop classical” as a thing in the first place.
For my part, I also recognize that there are nearly as many voice teachers who would object to what I do with my own teen singers. There are plenty of teachers who believe that teens have no business singing classical music at all, beyond perhaps the very simplest tunes among G. Schirmer’s time-worn “Twenty-Four Italian Songs & Arias,” the staple of every classical voice student’s collection. My students study these pieces, of course, but I also introduce them to Mozart, Handel, Purcell, and more, and not necessarily just the few pieces widely deemed “safe” for young singers (depending on the singer, of course). Next summer, I’ll have an 18-year-old young woman freshly graduated from high school singing Fiordiligi’s aria “Come scoglio” in our workshop’s adaptation of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. Were I to announce this fact in the “Professional Voice Teachers” Facebook group I belong to, there would be hell to pay. I’m pushing the envelope, and I know it. We voice teachers are not necessarily of one mind on these things, not by far. And we’re all certain that we’re in the right.
I’m no exception. I take issue with what I hear when I listen to young Laura Bretan. Her voice sounds strained to me (particularly in her upper range), her breathing labored, and her tone artificially pushed and darkened to sound more mature than it actually is. I hear a manufactured “operatic” quality just barely hanging on for dear life while her natural voice peeks out around the edges, threatening to break the illusion. It is a process I fear will take its toll on this developing voice and ultimately destroy any chance she might have had for a real, grown-up singing career, all in the name of corporate television ratings. I contrast this with my own little studio and its tiny teen opera program, whose biggest claim to fame is supportive tweets from Joyce DiDonato, and the two things seem utterly unrelated.
But in one way, they are not. Because somehow both that corporate behemoth and my tiny little program have become part of the same movement, knowingly or not–one that seeks to share the beauty of opera and classical singing with new audiences. Ultimately, when people ask me about Laura Bretan, the thing I most want to say is, “Okay, you liked that? Here, listen to these teens. Here, dig deeper. Here, discover more!” Like Claudia Friedlander, I see this as an opportunity. Come, listen to my teens sing with their natural (trained) voices. Hear their beautiful, bright tones, unamplified yet able to cut through a small orchestra! Discover the wealth and breadth of centuries of beautiful music that goes far beyond the two Puccini arias (we all know what they are) you’re being fed over and over again! And speaking of Joyce DiDonato, teens, sign up for her newsletter, Opera Rocks. There is so much beauty to be found in the world of classical singing, and yes… some of it is being sung by teenagers.
Here. Have some.