Susan Boyle has been on my mind lately, the woman who made such a gigantic splash on the television program “Britain’s Got Talent” . . . which isn’t even shown here in the United States. But through the wonders of the internet and websites like YouTube, just about any American with a pulse has seen her mesmerizing performance of “I Dreamed a Dream.” I’m sure you know the story. This dowdy, homely, middle-aged woman walked out on to the stage and proceeded to wow both the audience and a panel of three judges with her singing – drawing cheers, tears, and a standing ovation in what is surely the greatest Feel Good Story of 2009.
Except that I have trouble feeling good about what this story tells us about ourselves.
It tells us that too many people buy into the completely absurd notion that beautiful sounds are most apt to emerge from the throats of beautiful-looking people. When Susan Boyle walked out on that stage, she appeared poised to deliver nothing more than some comedy relief in the midst of a high-stakes talent contest. And then she opened her mouth and this wonderful sound and ardent, expressive singing poured out and the judges reacted as though it were the most stunning surprise of their lives. (And said so.) What was so surprising here? What possible reason should there have been to have such low expectations of her singing? I am disgusted with these three judges because they are the “professionals” whose job it is to render fair and perceptive judgment on the contestants who perform for them. What does their dumbfoundedness say about them?
Maybe I come out of a different mind set because I work with singers nearly every day of my life – and it doesn’t take a long time in the trenches to learn that looking pretty and singing pretty have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Some of the prettiest-looking people are utterly pathetic singers – and there are people who could crack a mirror with their looks who sing exquisitely. Working seriously with singers also underscores that knowing how to sing has nothing to do with how slick or polished one is. It certainly might help a singer get a job, but as a pre-requisite for singing well? Completely irrelevant.
This certainly plays out when you spend a day at something like district solo and ensemble contest. A game I like to play is to watch as a given student walks to the front of the room, preparing to sing, and try to guess what sorts of sounds are about to issue from their throat. Usually the spoken introduction they give tells you a lot in terms of whether or not they are confident in front of an audience or if they’re scared of their own shadow. But even then, some confident people will open their mouths to sing and you’ll wish they hadn’t – while some wallflower type will suddenly bloom as they begin to sing. What is always abundantly clear is that looks are completely beside the point in terms of whether or not someone can sing.
The opera world used to be a place where this was very much in evidence. Once upon a time, singing mattered much much much more than being physically attractive and /or believable as a romantic character. If you had a big, beautiful voice and could use it well, it really didn’t matter if you were the size of a side-by-side refrigerator freezer. And in certain kinds of opera sung with large orchestras (like Wagner) you almost always had Plus-Size singers because they were the ones with sufficiently big voices. A frequent guest of the Milwaukee Symphony over the last twenty years has been a soprano named Alessandra Marc, who is the largest professional singer I’ve ever seen. She was nearly spherical in shape and when she would walk on to the stage of Uihlein Hall, you would have sworn that the earth was trembling. Of course, many big people are still physically attractive (such as Jessye Norman) but by most common standards, Alessandra Marc was/is not. But then she would open her mouth and you wouldn’t have cared if she had three heads, purple skin, and an alligator’s tail, so glorious was the sound with which she flooded the hall and set the walls trembling. A singer I admire actually far more than Ms. Marc (who in her prime produced some wonderful sounds but was never a particularly expressive or musical singer) is a mezzo soprano named Dolora Zajick. Pound for pound, there is no greater singer in the world – and she has been at the pinnacle of her profession for a long time now. She is also a rather unglamorous-looking person who walks with a slight limp. But she is one of the all-time great singers and no one cares that she probably wouldn’t even be let into the building for the Miss Nevada Pageant.
But that is really changing now in opera – and so many of the biggest stars in opera – especially those you see in telecasts and movie theater simulcasts – are beautiful both to look at and to hear. . .although the perception of old-timers like me is that in many cases singers are getting hired more for looks than for vocal ability, which is worrisome. It’s true that opera is theater – and towards that end, it’s nice when you do Romeo and Juliet to have a tenor who looks more like Brad Pitt than Barney Fife. But when push comes to shove, I would rather have Barney Fife who sings gloriously than Brad Pitt if he sings like a hinge.
Which brings me back to my initial point – that whether or not a singer looks like Brad Pitt or Barney Fife tells us nothing. . . and I mean NOTHING WHATSOEVER . . . about whether or not they know how to sing. And any competition with judges who don’t seem to understand that is the biggest fraud since Enron. And if on the other hand, the judges actually already knew she could sing and just pretended to be bemused and subsequently amazed when she opened her mouth and began the song, then the show is a different kind of fraud. Either way, the Susan Boyle Story is a feel- good story for her (assuming she recovers from her mental and emotional breakdown) but otherwise a tale of woeful wrongheadedness.
pictured above: Susan Boyle in the midst of her first performance on “Britain’s Got Talent,” singing “I dreamed a dream” from Les Miserables. By the way, one of my favorite moments in her performance came when she finished singing, graciously accepted the cheers of the audience (on its feet) and the bravo’s of the judges, and then just proceeded to walk rather matter-of-factly off the stage until someone gestured for her to walk right back to the spotlight. That moment said more than anything about this lovely, sincere woman. I hope that very good things are ahead for her.