Sunday, July 10, 2011

Beyond Opera: the Incredible Voice of Jackie Evancho

The shy, retiring, and brilliant naturalist, Charles Darwin, had his bulldog to ward off the nay-saying theologians in Thomas Huxley. The diminutive, "nice," and brilliant classical crossover singer with an utterly unique ability, Jackie Evancho, has her bulldog to ward off the nay-saying opera professionals in “Ehkzu.”  Time and again Ehkzu takes on the “expert” critics who insist on making Jackie out to be an operatic wannabe without portfolio. The following is an excerpt from his counterattack against the latest operatic critic, which I have edited so that it reads in general terms. After that is speculation about what it is that causes Evancho’s voice to have such an incredible effect.

2011-6-21 Jay Leno AngelPhoto enhancement courtesy of Greg Chance

“Don’t judge Jackie's voice production by opera singer standards. She has never said she was an opera singer, or aspired to be an opera singer. In fact when interviewers call her an opera singer she promptly and politely corrects them, saying she's a classical crossover singer.

“Most--not all--opera singers do embarrassingly badly at singing pop and vice versa, as Aretha Franklin's trauma-inducing rendition of Nessun Dorma aptly shows.  Each musical genre has its own standards for singing excellence. Opera singers most likely would do wretchedly singing Indian classical music, which employs training and standards fully as demanding as opera. And classical music that is not opera, such as lieder/art songs, is often trampled by opera singers' stentorian blasts when a more intimate sound would suit the music far better. It's not always better to ‘park and bark.’

“So while it's true that ‘a child's anatomy cannot support a full-voiced [i.e., operatic] tone,’ it's also true that this is irrelevant. It IS pleasant to listen to for those ‘without a working context of what a true, trained voice can and should sound like.’

“Ms. Evancho has a large number of fans who are thoroughly familiar with the operatic repertoire from Monteverdi and Gluck to Handel and Mozart and Weber and Verdi and Boito and Wagner and Puccini and Weill and Bartok, right on through Philip Glass and John Adams; who know, for example, that Ms. Evancho's Ombra Mai Fu was written for a castrato--a voice quality no living opera singer can reproduce, as it happens. So, by strict originality standards, what opera star has any more right to sing it than Ms. Evancho does?

Jackie during AGT season
  “And when Ms. Evancho does sing opera arias, she does not sing them operatically--nor does she intend to, nor do her listeners want her to. I love Domingo's Nessun Dorma more than Pavarotti's Nessun Dorma, which I find pretty but insubstantial --and I love Ms. Evancho's Nessun Dorma which, in her capable hands, becomes such a different rendition that I don't even find them competing with each other. One epitomizes Turandot's storyline; the other is a concert piece serving artistic goals unrelated to the specifics of the aria as sung during a performance of Turandot.

“’Her parents are ‘exploitive?’ Unless the critics know them and can prove that they're exploitative parents, they should have the moral courage to realize that they slander them and should apologize profusely for their offensive assumption.

“That her work ‘almost certainly guarantees that any genuine career in the classical arts will never be an option’ directly contradicts the statements about her current and future prospects by Julliard voice teachers as well as music professors at Carnegie Mellon University.

“The fact is that she doesn't belt--ever. She always stays well within the limits of her considerable range. Her concert schedule is extremely light. She does challenging pieces like Nessun Dorma rarely. She's examined by an otolaryngologist biannually and more often by voice teachers to make sure that she's doing nothing to damage her instrument. And her mother, a nurse by profession, has stated repeatedly that they do everything in their power to ensure the long-term safety of her instrument.

“Opera critics express contempt for classical crossover music. I understand this attitude to a degree. It's certainly easier to sing When You Wish upon a Star from Disney's Pinocchio than Glitter and Be Gay from Bernstein's Candide. But difficulty of singing something and the aesthetic pleasure that something produces are independent variables. There are many operas that are emotionally shallow and, while not easy to sing, are not particularly moving. There are also many operas that are great works of art and are profoundly moving.

“Same goes for other genres. Peggy Lee's "Fever" rendition doesn't require much of a range, but her phrasing and nuanced delivery make it thrilling to listen to--in a way that the formally beautiful but emotionally pallid Flower Duet from Lakme does not. And some operatic pieces that are quite moving aren't that difficult to sing.

2011-5-31 Yonge- Dundas Square Toronto free concert 4Photo enhancement courtesy of Greg Chance

“And even within opera, few have what it takes to do, say, Siegfried. That doesn't make a tenor who isn't a heldentenor worthless or even inferior. Just different.

“‘In truth, this girl's voice sounds no different from any other child who has had early vocal lessons.’ What? She’s an autodidact (one self-taught) who developed her distinctive sound without ‘early vocal lessons.’ There is not one YouTube link to any other prepubescent singer who sounds like her. I've listened to Beverly Sills and Julie Andrews at that age, and they don't sound anything like Ms. Evancho. They sound like girls with possible futures as coloratura sopranos. Ditto every single other recorded child's voice out there.

“And every parent who thinks their child is the next singing star links their YouTube clips to Jackie Evancho's. I've listened to all of them and not one sounds remotely like her.

“Operatic critical conclusions about Jackie Evancho and her parents are easy to understand for what they are, statements by those who are prisoners of their own expertise.

“Unfortunately, operatic parochialism trumps operatic education and makes critics unable to understand why Jackie Evancho regularly makes musical sophisticates and non-sophisticates alike tear up when she sings. The ancient Greeks, when exposed to the oratory of the Sophists, would say, ‘How well they speak.’ But when Demosthenes spoke, they would say, ‘Let us march on Sparta.’

Great Performances: Jackie Evancho-Dream With Me in Concert
“These critics are like the Sophists. Jackie Evancho is like Demosthenes. At some level opera critics must realize this. So, is it sheer envy that makes these critics seek to belittle this young lady, her parents, her genre, and her fans? Is it the knowledge that she will be the beloved of millions and bring many to opera who had never listened to it before she exposed them to it, for decade after decade....while many critical operatic singers toil in obscurity?”

How then does Jackie Evancho have the power to stun people? I’ve seen the following words in print used to describe the effect of her voice:  spellbinding, enchanting, enrapturing, entrancing, euphoria-inducing, rhapsodic. Many report laughing and crying tears of joy at the same time. Ehkzu reports that one of the professional operatic chorus singers doing backup for her Nessun Dorma as a guest on Britain's Got Talent said she was "gobsmacked" by this child's voice.

This experience, in my opinion, remediates “cognitive dissonance,” an inability to fathom what was once a common cultural currency in western entertainment for centuries, opera. Times have changed. Many Americans  know what opera is but can’t seem to make much sense of it. The “recontextualized” or “crossover” sounds heard from Evancho, however, do make sense of the classical style of singing, wonderfully so. Her singing releases listeners from mystification with operatic sound. So pleasant, so familiar, it even has the power to cause ekstasis, (έκσταση), which literally means away from place, one’s mental place, meaning that one goes out of one’s mind when hearing Jackie sing. The place or state the listener is sent, into which she intends to send them, is a blissful one, a state of seeming grace.

This ecstasy can happen especially when watching her sing. In this sense, some compare her to the European singing sensation of the mid-nineteenth century, Jenny Lind. Like Evancho, there was something about Lind’s person, who could only sing to live audiences in the days before recorded music, that contributed to the success of her incredible voice. The biographical pamphlet promoting Lind's highly successful American tour states, "It is her intrinsic worth of heart and delicacy of mind that produces Jenny's vocal potency." She earned for promoter P. T. Barnum $5,000 per performance and for herself $350,000 in one year, a fortune in 1850 dollars. She gave most of it away to benevolent societies, particularly for schools in her native Sweden. As for Evancho, examiners of her character cite “purity, simplicity, humility, gratefulness, innocence.” Besides prodigious talent, she must share with Lind compelling personable qualities that reach out from behind her voice to captivate and enthrall audiences.

2011-4-11-14 Ringling PBS PBS ConcertPhoto enhancement courtesy of Greg Chance

Still, this doesn’t seem enough to explain what it is about her voice that causes this effect, this “melting of the soul.” Observers use terms like, “effortless, elegance, and beautifully soaring.” People cite phenomenological particulars such as perfect pitch and haunting timbre. Statements like “a light, lyric soprano tone that is integrated, smooth, round & buttery” are descriptive yet do not fully explain. She allegedly has good “diaphragmatic control.”  What is meant by her ability to “blend modal and falsetto registers without passagio” over a wide range must give clues but only to the the voice experts. Others have tried a psychoanalytical approach, based on audioscope graphs. Evancho is able to produce a perfectly symmetrical waveform, which is summating, transposed on top of one another, causing a higher amplitude audio signal at a specific tone, or combination of tones that exceeds a psychological/ physiological threshold, resulting in the listener being overwhelmed with emotion. They say her tonality is so perfect that, in some cases, it mimics the clarity and precise sounds produced by a series of finely tuned bells. That is why some viewers use the term "bell like sound" when they comment on her singing. These bell-like tones, along with her innocence, evokes psychological archetypes that affect a listener’s emotions, triggering what others would say is a "religious experience." Keeping with the more limited perimeters of exclamation, Piers Morgan of the show that gave Evancho national recognition, America’s Got Talent, says, “perfection.” Sharon Osbourne says, “heavenly.”  Simon Cowell says, “magic.” Exclamations, however, are not explanations, and we are still left at a loss. So is Evancho. People ask, and she struggles with a response. “An angel,” perhaps, gives her a sense that she is  “the first to have ever sung the song.” Something causes  her to become “possessed by the music” while singing, an ability that she attributes to God. She just thanks God for her voice and prays prior to each performance that God be with her on stage and sing with her.

Maybe there just simply are no words to adequately explain “it.” Evancho opens her mouth to sing and something happens. It is inexplicable and maybe ought to remain so. But the best I’ve seen is the conclusion at which Ehkzu arrives. “It's not just the pipes, or the training, or the wholesome attractiveness of the total package. It's that she understands, even at eleven years of age, the inner nature of art. And she communicates that in performance. Nobody taught her that. Nobody can teach you that. She just has it. And it will take her around the world and into the hearts of millions of people. She won't just be admired--she'll be beloved, because she embodies not just an extraordinary talent, but our highest aspirations.

“When I watch her perform I want to be a better person.”


  1. Hi David,

    Greg Chance here responding to your comment on Facebook regarding using my photo in your article. In fact, you have used 3 of my Flickr Photostream photos (first, third and fifth in your article). I'm ecstatic that my work is being used to publicize and praise Jackie, she deserves it and more. Thank you...

  2. David, this is a wonderful article about Jackie. Your writing style is very eloquent. You and Ezkhu rank up there as being two of the best writers to tell the story about Jackie and her wondrous gift.

    Thanks for taking the time to do this. Maybe a few critics of Jackie could learn a thing or two from your article about how to understand what Jackie is all about.

  3. Wonderful wonderful article. So much expressed and articulated with true appreciation of the beauty and ethereal magic that so holds us spellbound. I have participated in the forums on Amazon that Ehkzu has started. What a pleasure to discuss with such minds and hearts. Someday, all the naysayers with be silenced once and for all as Jackie's gift will go on to bless us for years to come. The uplifting of the spirit engendered by this sweet voice has come at no better moment in time. I feel grateful to live in the time of Jackie Evancho. She takes the horror away and replaces it with profound beauty and peace. Don't try to explain it....just listen.

  4. I found this post after thinking why has no one compared Jackie to Jenny Lind? I was wrong. Clearly people have. As I read this article it was so resonant with my own feelings about Jackie. When I hear her I feel Joy. When she smiles with that thrill of satisfaction when receiving an ovation, you can only wonder if she really realizes what a gift she has given to her audience. We can never know how Jenny Lind sounded compared to Jackie Evancho But it is clear that both were once in a lifetime experiences.

  5. Musical prodigies are rare and classic vocal prodigies are even rarer still. Jackie is included on a very short list of known vocal prodigies such as Beverly Sills and Julie Andrews. They both made their debuts at age 12. Jackie made her debut at age 10. Throughout history child prodigies have always been a lightening rod for jealousy and resentment and Jackie is no different. This fact is understandable because what comes so easy and natural to prodigies requires years of training for a normal adult to achieve. Opera critics write blogs and and critique to each other but they are only barking up at an empty tree. People like me could care less what they have to say because we understand what drives them to do so. We just know what we like and we love to listen to Jackie sing.You would think their world was ending listening to some of them and perhaps it is as far as opera goes.They can continue to denigrate Classic/Crossover and refer to it as pop/opera or popera all they wish but it is becoming far more popular and it's artists extremely well known compared to the obscure opera singers. They are losing singers from their ranks. Even my favorite coloratura soprano, Natalie Dessay has fled the opera stage for a more lucrative career persuing theater an pop and jazz music. Envy is a deadly sin and opera critics reak of it.

  6. Great article, one of the best I have ever seen to explain why jackie moves so many people. You explain it from all angles, from the technical, to the emotional, and even the religious.

  7. She's my angel and I want her to sing on my funeral.

  8. When other sopranos hit notes at the top of their range, the result has been described as being like hearing fingernails being scratched across a blackboard. I'd rather describe it as being like having a giant bee stinging the back of your neck right in that spot where your spine stretches the skin.
    When Jackie hits those same notes, instead of the stinger, you get the honey.

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  10. I'm 69 years old and have listened to sopranos all my life. Deanna Durbin, Jane Powell, Jeanette MacDonald in movies. And I minored in music in college. Pavarotti said opera is controlled yelling. Someone else (?) said opera requires adherance to certain rules in order to sustain the voice for stage, and to satisfy a narrow appreciation of the "sound". I've listened to sopranos, well-paid, who are "appreciated" but who "sound" downright awful. Jackie plays by her own rules--feeling and purity of tone. . . period. Phantom exemplifies Jackie's love for these two qualities. And she puts them into all that she sings. Why else would I listen to the same songs over and over and over. . . and still get chills, and choked throat, and tears. I feel her feelings and we emote together!

  11. As I write this in February 2019. Jackie Evancho is even better than ever! People still want to criticize her style. Jealousy never dies! Many critics have said over the years that she would ruin her voice. Boy, are they ever wrong. People forget that Jackie's voice is a gift from God and He will protect it as long as she remains faithful to Him! You can't look at Jackie's voice as anything but Heavenly! At 65 she is still the only person who can make me weep with joy listening to her! I certainly have no musical training. All I know is that Jackie moves my heart and soul. God did not only Bless Jackie, but also the rest of the world to be able to enjoy her voice! Thanks be to God!

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