It’s been 18 months since soprano Jackie Evancho charmed the nation as a finalist on TV’s “America’s Got Talent.” In that time, she’s had a gold record, a platinum EP and a PBS special and has managed to sell out Avery Fisher Hall. Not bad for a girl from Richland Township, Penn., who won’t turn 12 until April.
Perhaps because she is a child ultimately thrust into the spotlight thanks to a public vote, everyone has an opinion on what she should sing, when she should sing it, how talented she really is and her shelf life as a performer. Los Angeles will see her in concert Feb. 24 with a full orchestra at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live.
Evancho’s fans are not mainly children as you might think but — anecdotally, at least — the middle-aged, middle-brow set that buys the vaguely spiritual, gently classical records generally categorized as classical crossover. Evancho’s go-to songs (“O Mio Babbino Caro,” “Ombra ma fu,” “To Believe” and “Angel”) are just as likely to appear on albums by Andrea Bocelli, Sarah Brightman or the Altar Boyz as her lastest, “Dream With Me.”
All artists have superfans, but Evancho’s are known to be especially rabid. Nowhere is this more evident than on that bastion of decorum and polite exchange, the Internet. Hostile takeovers of comment sections are the norm. Any criticism, real or imagined, is met with rebuttals violent in their intensity but disappointingly predictable in their content.
Superfans and the casually devoted alike often refer to Evancho as an angel. She is loved for her purity as much as her voice, a fact not lost on her marketing team. Evancho’s performance clothes are a delicate balance between adult glam and girlish innocence. High necklines, flat shoes and a knee-length hem combat the inherent sexuality of luxurious evening gowns designed to flatter a woman’s figure. A purity ring, purportedly given to Evancho by her father, only blurs the line further.
To critics, Evancho is an as-good-as-abused child exploited by greedy parents and record execs. Her father, Michael, has done the usual quitting of his job to help manage her career, but overall it doesn’t seem that Evancho’s parents have enrolled in the Spears & Lohan School of Stage Parenting. Her mother manages @jackieevancho on Twitter and spends a lot of time emphasizing all the normal things that Jackie does. It smacks ever so slightly of protesting too much, but, to be fair, what mother wouldn’t get a little protective when thousands of people are asking weird questions about her daughter?
For classical music fans, Evancho is either met with complete disinterest as yet another peddler of the loathed classical lite or the subject of much hand-wringing over the factor by which every premature “Babbino” reduces her chances of a career on the opera stage.
Whatever your thoughts, Evancho is in it for at least the medium haul. No longer a novelty, she is increasingly difficult to quantify. Is she a genuine prodigy or a reasonably talented kid whose YouTube video was viewed by the right person at the right time?
Answering that question quickly devolves into an exercise in defining terms. What does prodigy mean? Compared with whom? Is the voice unusual on its own, or is it because we more commonly hear kids sing pop music?
The task is made even more difficult by the fact that Evancho is, in many ways, unremarkable. She has said on several occasions that she doesn’t practice much, and though her website lists 10 full-length concerts between now and September, many of her gigs are one- or two-song appearances.
By way of contrast, the pre-college divisions of major conservatories are full of sixth-graders who can play circles around her. Anglican and Episcopal cathedral choirs have spent 400 years training children from age 7 to sing extremely difficult music in a manner antithetical to Evancho but still highly stylized and not entirely natural. Elite gymnasts with Olympic aspirations or ballet dancers with an eye on a pro career have to get their 10,000 hours of practice in before they even reach middle school. All of these children spend hours shuttling between lessons, competitions and training gyms with many living away from home for large parts of the year.
None of these kids are on Leno, not because they aren’t blessed with natural talent or willing to sacrifice but rather because mini-ballerinas and violists don’t make great television.
Critic Tim Page had a go at the cult of the prodigy in the Washington Post in December, saying, “If I were king, I think I would put some kind of ultra-restrictive law on the books that would permit the best and the brightest of our children to flower to ripeness, follow their curiosities, study their art, learn about joy and heartbreak and, ultimately, to turn into people before they are trotted out as the latest phenomenon.”
Page, like many people who worry about Evancho, uses the United Kingdom’s Charlotte Church as an exemplar. Now 25, Church burned out vocally just as her body started to betray her sexless choir girl image. On the other hand, she owns a yacht called Sketchy.
The same fate may befall Evancho. It may not. But so what if it did? She has said many times that she wants to be a vet when she grows up. Would it be so bad if she lets her career expire naturally in a few years’ time, heads to university with her pockets full of cash and then returns to semi-rural Pennsylvania and opens an animal hospital?
First published in the Los Angeles Times