By Bob Litton
NOTE TO READERS: I “fell in love” early last May, when, due to another of my “serendipitous” Internet explorations, I happened upon some performances by a young Dutch girl on YouTube. The three clips were filmed during the “Holland’s Got Talent” competition last fall and winter. The girl’s name is Amira Willighagen. She was nine years old when she sang Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” as her audition number in October 2013; I read later that her tenth birth anniversary was last March. Amira’s semi-final offering was the “Ave Maria” composed by J.S. Bach/Charles Gounod, which Amira performed on December 21. And her final rendition, a week later, was another Puccini aria, “Nessun Dorma” from his opera Turandot.
I was so overwhelmed with admiration for this little Dutch girl that I emailed the YouTube URL’s to friends and revisited those clips many times since. Most of my acquaintances are aware how obsessively analytical I am. The writing below is the result of my analysis of almost everything that was apparent during Amira’s three performances.
Jaws dropped in a Netherlands auditorium last October 26 when a nine-year-old Dutch girl, standing confidently in the middle of a cavernous stage, empty except for her and a large backdrop of a painted farm with rows of tulips, opened her mouth and began to sing the opening notes of Giacomo Puccini’s aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” from his opera Gianni Schicchi. The surprise — almost shock — was not due simply to the fact that the girl was sounding all the right notes: it was also due to her voice tone: she sounded like a lady thrice her age. In fact, one of the judges, Gordon Heuckeroth, expressed the possibility that Amira might be the reincarnation of Maria Callas. (Amira’s fans have posited an alternate spirit: Kirsten Flagstad.)
But, actually, much of the surprise was generated even before Amira had begun to sing; by the uninhibited manner she strode to center stage, vigorously waving her hand in salutation to the applauding audience, which included her family and friends as well as many strangers. Her responses to the three judges’ preliminary questions were tantalizing as well: she told them she had looked for some suitable songs on YouTube for singing on “Queen’s Day” and that she had never had a singing lesson. I have heard of playing the piano “by ear” but never of learning to sing arias from “YouTube”.
All three judges — Heuckeroth, Chantal Tanzen, and Dan Karaty — were effusive in their praise of Amira’s talent and remarked especially on how unthreatened she had revealed herself to be before the large audience. They heartily voted that she should be given the “Golden Ticket”, which would allow her to proceed directly to the finals. (Since she would sing “Ave Maria” during the semi-finals, I am not sure what she was being permitted to skip over.)
After Heuckeroth gave her the ticket and hugged her, Amira ran toward her father and brother who were waiting in the wing. She smiled at the audience and waved her ticket as she ran. Then she hugged her gleefully hopping brother, Fincent, who might have been her twin, for he was virtually the same in height, and his facial features were almost identical to hers. The most charming thing about Fincent, for me, was that he showed not an ounce of jealousy toward his sister; he was, in fact, immensely proud of her. Amira’s beaming father was also there, and she hugged him as well.
The next time I viewed that video, I noticed an interesting element that perhaps most people might have passed over: There was a low, glass partition separating Amira from the judges; on it were printed three large “X’s”; one of several cameras used, while focusing on the standing and applauding judges, captured the reflection of Amira running off stage and waving her large ticket. Other camera angles throughout the preliminary interview and post-performance comments from the judges were equally impressive, just from a technical standpoint. Very professional camera work and editing!
During her audition (“O Mio Babbino Caro”), Amira wore a cute but informal outfit, the same as she might wear to school or to the playground. She had on a long-sleeved, chamois-colored top that extended almost to her knees, and stone-gray pants, which reminded me of a Chinese peasant’s outfit.
For her semi-final performance (“Ave Maria”), however, she came dressed in a short white dress and wearing a garland made up of gleaming white berries or faux pearls such as one might imagine an angel would wear. Also, her long, brown hair had been “done”: while, during her audition, it had shown some loose, natural curliness, it was now much more definitely full of curls. And, when she stood on the circular platform that had been set up for her, her stance and hand movements showed that she had been given some coaching in stage presence since October; but she had exhibited modesty and calmness even back then: she did not really need much coaching. When Amira began her “Ave Maria”, she still was not nervous, but the judges certainly were: they acknowledged that they could not understand how a nine-year-old girl could bear the pressure of being the focus of millions of viewers.
And, on her final day at the competition (“Nessun Dorma”), she wore a cream-colored summer dress with a wide, golden cincture around her waist. The naturally wavy curls were back. The scene was much more formal, with triangular light patterns and a chorus of grownups as backup. Amira’s posture, too, was more stylized and evidenced a heavy, but effective, dose of coaching. Much of the time she held her arms out with upturned fingers and moved them rhythmically, as though she were conducting a chorus. Judge Chantal Tanzen admiringly remarked on Amira’s several seconds of silence, her hands held lightly and still in front, and eyes closed as the chorus did their part. Not missing was Amira’s usual guileless simplicity, her openness to the audience’s response.
Days after first viewing the “Holland’s Got Talent” videos, I noticed on YouTube the image of another young girl who had amazed her judges during a similar competition in the United States. I checked her out. Her name is Jackie Evancho, a native of Pennsylvania; and, lo and behold, back in 2010 — when she was ten years old — Jackie had won the contest by singing the same songs as Amira! Now Jackie is fourteen and has recorded CD’s and performed at various concerts: she even sang the national anthem at a professional ball game!
How can I compare the two girls other than by remarking that Jackie is a blonde, while Amira is a brunette or that Jackie is an American; and Amira, a Dutch girl? I am not a musicologist, so I do not feel competent to compare the levels of musical quality in their voices. Also, I saw and heard Amira first, a fact which unfortunately compromises my judgment. You know the common comment about which was better, the book or the movie? Well, I think most of the judgment in those comparisons favors whichever was experienced first; and the same holds true in this situation.
However, I believe there are some elements here which I can address honestly and directly. One is the volume in each of their voices: Amira has a surprisingly powerful set of lungs; she can project, so her voice seems to me to be more suited to operatic pieces. Jackie’s tone is more subdued, something like Julie London or Nina Simone. Another element is the stage presence: Amira hardly moves her head at all, and when she does, it is always in smooth, gliding motions; while Jackie has a bit of twitch in her neck that, for me at least, is distracting. And, more subtly, Amira seems to reveal a level of adept concentration and candidness that I miss in Jackie’s expression; but that difference might be attributable more to the camera work than to the girls.
Another element which affected me but which I cannot hold either girl accountable for are the settings and choreographies: let’s face it, my fellow Americans, those Netherlanders have got us “whupped” when it comes to show atmosphere! In one of Jackie’s videos, especially — her “Bridge over Troubled Waters” — I was so much turned off by the long gown she was wearing and the special effect of a shallow river she supposedly was strolling through that I “clicked” it off, even though “Bridge” is one of my favorite songs.
Jackie did have one major point in her favor, however: she was there first, like four years first! I cannot deny her that. And that fact smudges my appreciation of Amira a little bit — just a little bit. I was left with the impression that the songs Amira saw and heard performed on YouTube were the ones Jackie had sung.
Brother, do I ever love that little girl Amira! I just hope she does not get over-worked, lose her voice too early, become egocentric, or end up dismayed by all that she probably will face in the future: it is important that she realize her childhood. By all means, I hope she can avoid becoming a celebrity; but I think that is going to be hard to manage. As one of the judges, Dan Karaty, said to Amira after one of her performances, “You’re a star — you are a star who belongs onstage!”