A Great Talent, at Great Risk

Will 'America's Got Talent' and ambition ruin a 13-year-old opera prodigy?

By Crawford Kilian 10 Jun 2016 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Like some 10.8 million others, I recently stumbled across an online clip from the May 31 audition show for America's Got Talent.

It showed me Laura Bretan, a skinny little kid preparing to perform before the show's harsh judges.

And harsh they were, as the video included scenes in which they demolished a couple of other acts. Yet 13-year-old Laura was encouraged backstage, not only by her mother but by a charming young show official. She went out on the huge stage clutching her microphone, answered a couple of patronizing questions from the judges, swapped a thumbs-up with her mum in the wings.

Then, with her first few syllables of "Nessun dorma," a famous aria from Puccini's opera Turandot, Laura Bretan blew the roof off the house.

I've watched this many times, as well as digging up Bretan's other videos on YouTube. Her talent is inarguable. Just watching that grown woman's voice escape from a child's throat is breathtaking. By the time she hits the last "Vincero!" we're all in tears.

And the video's editing is extraordinary: cuts from the judges to Laura, gasping audience members to Mum and official, to the little girl nailing that last high note. Then the judges praise her, she gets the Golden Buzzer that sends her to the semifinals, and everyone is gobsmacked, from Laura to the charming official and Mum.

Wonderful -- an amazing story, concisely told. And maybe too well-told.

I can't believe that every performer gets this kind of pre-audition attention on the off chance that he or she might be this season's success. Laura Bretan and her talent have been well known in Chicago's Romanian emigré community, where she has been singing in churches since she was seven. She's performed as far west as Seattle, and two years ago she won Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in New York -- also with "Nessun dorma."

A very hot property

So a lot of people at America's Got Talent must have known they had a very hot property on their hands, especially as she had just won Romania's Got Talent (a fact not mentioned in the video clip). Maybe the judges were kept in the dark, but the AGT team had to have known exactly what was going to happen, and set out to document it. They put the video online within hours, a knockout trailer for Season 11, and thousands began to follow @TheLauraBretan -- including me.

Well, there's no business like show business, and America's Got Talent is notably hokum-rich. It's a hyped-up version of the old amateur-hour radio shows of the 1930s and 40s, a deliberately cruel way of exploiting the desire for artistic success and fame.

In this case, however, the cruelty is more subtle than mere public humiliation on the stage. Laura Bretan is a gigantic talent, to be served and not argued with -- and not exploited. If she is typecast as nothing more than Cute Sweet Skinny Kid With Big Tear-Jerking Voice, she could be destroyed before our eyes, consumed by our own sentimentality and blocked from her potential as one of the great sopranos of our century.

I also sense an element of calculation in all this. We don't expect a nervous little girl to belt out an aria most of the audience has never heard before -- and a tenor aria, at that. Bretan makes it her own before our eyes, although in a highly abbreviated version. It's the song of a prince striving for the hand of a cruel princess who kills her suitors if they can't answer her riddles. This prince, however, promises that "I will win. I will win. I will win!"

And so Laura Bretan ends her own audition with an audacious prediction of victory that brings judges and audience to their feet.

Bretan's found the formula

This is not the first time she's appeared on a "talent" show. She won Romania's Got Talent with a rendition of "O mio babbino caro" that produced similar results: dramatically startled judges (one fell down, another crossed himself), cheering audience and good feelings all around.

And she's not the first prodigy to score with that aria. In 2013, Holland's Got Talent was blown away by a nine-year-old who sang it with eerily similar effect. ("Incredible! Unbelievable!" And a "Golden Ticket.") One judge even compared her to Maria Callas, which was like comparing a roll of tinfoil to a sword of Damascus steel.

In the wave of weepy online adulation of Bretan, a couple of dissenting voices were almost lost, like the voice teacher who worried Bretan is being pushed prematurely into singing what she is not yet physically prepared for. A professional singer, commenting on her Romanian performance, warned "She needs to stop and let her voice grow and mature if she is to have any chance of making it as a serious singer."

I think I can understand that concern. Watch the young women listening to Bretan, their eyes moist, mouthing "Oh my God" to their friends. Laura Bretan is what they were at 13, yearning to do something that would make the adult world accept and applaud them as they were, as gawky little girls who were nonetheless somehow geniuses. They couldn't understand a word of "Nessun dorma," but they understood a young woman's agonized desire for success and heard it in every syllable she sang.

But success as a little girl on a huge stage can be toxic. Once identified, a young talent like hers should be developed in secrecy, to be unleashed only when ready. Too many performances, too many recordings, too soon, and her voice could be ruined beyond repair. And so could her reputation if she is reduced to providing "vocal stylings" of vulgar musical crowd-pleasers.

Worse yet, if she experiences too much of this tacky kind of stardom, she might understandably recoil in disgust from music altogether, apart from Sundays in church and lullabies to her children. That would be a blessing to her congregation and her kids, but a terrible loss to the rest of us.  [Tyee]

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