© 2014 By Bob Litton: All rights Reserved
NOTE TO READERS: Last June, I published my first essay on Amira Willighagen. Those who have not read that one might benefit from perusing it before proceeding to read this one, probably my last. You can find that review via this URL: https://boblitton.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/a-shout-out-for-amira/ [Dear Readers: I published the post below earlier than I should have: Amira’s HGT win anniversary isn’t until December 28. After I wrote this piece, I just became too eager to release it to Cyberworld. I have some more Amira commentary scheduled for release early Sunday morning (Dec. 28), so please check that out also. —BL]
Above all the sad and crazy events I read about every day there arose in my view last May the brightest, most cheerful star ever to appear in my personal heaven: Amira Willighagen, the Dutch girl who won the Holland’s Got Talent contest in December 2013. (I discovered her serendipitously on YouTube while searching for a song sung by somebody else.) Amira was nine-years-old at the time she auditioned on October 26, and the three judges anticipated that her song selection would be a children’s favorite, but they were surprised…nay, astounded…when she sang one of Puccini’s arias with a voice that sounded as though it were coming from the throat of a diva at least twice her age. A few months later, Amira told an interviewer that her uniquely mature sound was produced by using not merely her throat but also her stomach to sing. (Somebody clue me in here. As I will relate in subsequent paragraphs, Amira is a talented jester as well as a talented singer. My question is, is she joking about this “stomach” business?)
Since capturing the HGT trophy on December 28, 2013, Amira has entertained at concerts in various countries, including South Africa, Germany, Switzerland, the U.S., and Argentina; been given a special “master class” in London by her hero-conductor Andre Rieu; and performed during one of maestro Rieu’s outdoor concerts last July in Maastricht, Netherlands.
Also, last March Amira’s first CD was released (on her birthday). Initially, I did not intend to buy the CD because more than fifty percent of my enjoyment of Amira’s performances is derived from observing her extraordinary poise and openness to her audiences – her stage presence: I can only obtain that pleasure by watching her videos repeatedly on YouTube. HGT judge Dan Karety was absolutely correct: Amira is “a star who belongs onstage.”
After hearing it announced that she had won the HGT competition, Amira revealed for the first time her impish sense of humor by lying on the stage with her arms and legs pointed upward in mimicry of an animal playing dead. Later, while being interviewed by one TV host in Germany and by another in Argentina, she again revealed, more subtly, this aptitude for the comic. Her jesting humor became apparent when she responded to their questions.
The German lady asked what her future goal is, expecting Amira to say she wants to become a diva. However, Amira said she did not know how much longer she would continue singing, that she likes to do athletics, and eventually wants to work for McDonald’s. The host, taken slightly aback, said, “Touché!…There is plenty of time for you to decide that. I hope to see you performing at La Scala in Milan and at the Metropolitan in New York City.” (Good save!!!)
The Argentinian lady was not so fortunate. In Spanish, she thanked (“Gracias!”) Amira for appearing on her show and then asked Amira how to say that in Dutch. “Dank u vel” replied Amira with a slightly guttural enunciation. The host tried to say the same, and Amira repeated it even more gutturally – three more times! – almost as though she were spitting out sour milk! The poor woman tried to imitate Amira’s exaggerated expression with each repetition, until finally giving up and saying, “Okay!”, she let it drop. (I have to admit that episode was a bit rough on Amira’s part…but funny, too.)
Regarding the Maastricht concert, I really admired Amira’s onstage behavior, especially the way she curtsied in three directions during her curtain call. There were two aspects of the concert, however, which disappointed me: (1) they had costumed her in what was purportedly a medieval princess’ dress and bonnet; and (2) the acoustics were less than desirable due to the fact that it was an outdoor event. The latter problem, of course, could not be avoided, as far as I know. As for the dress, though, I think they would have done better to have donned her in the dress she wore while singing “Nessun Dorma” at the HGT finals, or even the simple outfit she wore at her audition in October 2013. (Like a Quaker or a Shaker, I always prefer the plain and simple over the fancy and gaudy.) None of the videos I watched after the “contest” ones were as good as those three, where the acoustics were superb, the cinematography commendable, and the dress modest. I will concede that the dropping of bits of blue and gold confetti all over Amira at the end of her audition, and after she was announced the winner in the finals, was an uncalled-for nuisance. Nor did I find that the simulated water waves during the “Nessun Dorma” performance added anything to its appeal.
Naturally, there have been some critics of Amira’s rise to operatic stardom. There is one mudslinging female blogger who says young girls should not try to sing opera, which, she claims, requires intimate knowledge of the languages and histories of the countries where the operas were composed. Others opine that heavy-duty aria-singing can damage a young person’s throat organs.
All this puts me in the unusual position of having to defend the singing of nonsense (which I have slammed in previous posts) and not paying attention to the nonsense. It reminds me of the remarks art historian Lord Kenneth Clark made during one episode of his BBC series Civilisation:
“What on earth has given opera its prestige in western civilisation, a prestige that has outlasted so many different fashions and ways of thought? Why are people prepared to sit silently for three hours listening to a performance of which they do not understand a word and of which they very seldom know the plot? Why do quite small towns all over Germany and Italy still devote a large portion of their budgets to this irrational entertainment? Partly, of course, because it is a display of skill, like a football match. But chiefly, I think, because it is irrational. ‘What is too silly to be said may be sung’.* Well, yes; but what is too subtle to be said, or too deeply felt, or too revealing or too mysterious— these things can also be sung and can only be sung.”
In the present instance, the criticism is really aimed at those who encourage a young girl to sing a song uttering the pleas of a young woman to her father and threatening to drown herself in a river if he does not grant her wish. Okay, it’s a tragic scene. Should children be exposed to such horrific words, either singing them or hearing them? Well, look at the folk tale of “Hansel and Gretel” and 19th century composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s derivative opera: parents abandoning their children in the forest to let them starve there, a witch fattening a boy for her supper, a girl pushing the witch into an oven. That story and many similarly rough tales we endured…need I say enjoyed…during our childhood. That much being given, what difference does it make what aria a young girl sings, as long as she sings it prettily. If the issue is the age appropriateness of a nine-year-old wanting to buy an engagement (or wedding?) ring, there are many occasions in all the arts where we are expected to suspend disbelief: Even I, at the age of twelve, eagerly used to sing the “Theme from High Noon” during music class talent exhibitions, and nobody ever commented to me on how absurd that was.
Finally, there is a pretense of “rivalry” which some people on the Internet have tried to foist on Amira and her American contemporary, Jackie Evancho, who won her own singing contest when she was only ten years old – four years before Amira. But these young ladies apparently are not jumping into that mud puddle. (Good for them!) Jackie gave Amira a “shout-out” on one of her Web sites, and Amira included Jackie among the persons she thanked on the booklet that accompanied her CD.
At nearly 75 years, I seriously doubt that I will be able to watch – much as I would like to – Amira’s progress into a potentially great operatic career. As Amira’s grandmother poignantly noted not long before dying, “She belongs to the world now.” But I am content with what I have been able to see and hear thus far. And, on my blog’s stats page listing of “views” I see 21 “views” on the “Amira” post during last June and July. I hope at least one of those “views” was on the Willighagen family’s computer.
* Lord Clark is quoting Pierre Beaumarchais (1732-1799), but I was unable to locate any record of the location or context of Beaumarchais’ comment. – BL