The e-mails and phone calls started coming last week. "Have you seen Susan Boyle? What do you think of her?" Friends ask me because they know me to be an aficionado of good singing (read: "obsessive opera and musical theater queen"). So what did I think of this latest vocal phenomenon?
Oh, how I hate whenever this happens, whenever some singer with an inspiring personal story appears out of nowhere and I become the prissy curmudgeon who points out the emperor's new voice. Almost everyone is going bananas for this woman, the middle-class spinster with the Merman pipes. A friend in New York suggested writing a Vera Drake musical for Susan Boyle to star in (a gruesome thought, considering the subject matter; Secrets and Lies has more potential). There will no doubt be a shelf full of Susan Boyle CDs soon enough, as well as concert tours, TV appearances, and Botox. That cheery, funny looking lady wiped the supercilious smile off Simon's face and wowed the world. It's cause for celebration! Why can't I just join in?
To be fair, Miss Boyle has a solid, attractive voice and excellent pitch, no small thing in what passes for singing on TV these days. But in other departments - style, vocal production, phrasing, dynamics, interpretation - I'm afraid she's nothing special. She performed a gut-wrenching (if treacly) ballad from Les Miz about a life without love, but showed no emotional connection to the song. Her performance made Kate Smith look like Edith Piaf.
Then again, she may be better than we know because the live audience of Britain's Got Talent, at least as shown in the final edit, was on its feet cheering after her first few notes. Once again, biography trumped musical values, as it so often does in our over-amplified, puff piece world. This is the land of American Idol, where discussion of vocal performance never ventures beyond "you really made it your own" or "it was a little pitchy, dawg." A Barbara Cook master class this ain't.
What is distressing about the Susan Boyle phenomenon is the way her story reinforces an unrealistic and patronizing attitude toward artists in general. What appeals to people is the idea that this ordinary, unglamorous woman - she could be that odd lady who lives next door with all the cats - became a star because of some magical gift from God. Like Andrea Bocelli and David Helfgott before her, Susan Boyle reinforces the notion that artists are freaks, strange people with difficult lives redeemed by their peculiar talent. The fact that their particular level of achievement pales beside the work of artists without their colorful personal story is unimportant. We want to believe that these performers are a different breed of human being, nothing like ourselves; sad figures to be applauded and pitied in equal measure. "I feel good about myself for appreciating that unattractive/blind/mentally-impaired person's art."
It is ironic that the Susan Boyle story broke just days before the premiere of The Audition, a new documentary about young singers competing in the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions. Like Susan Boyle, many of the competitors shown are not blessed with the greatest beauty or physical grace. But unlike Miss Boyle, their singing will be subjected to the highest scrutiny (in respectful silence) and they will spend years studying difficult music, vocal technique, and foreign languages in order to master their most demanding art. Yet their achievement will certainly never receive the attention and adulation lavished on Susan Boyle.
In fact, the world of opera is a mirror image of the Susan Boyle circus. Serious opera fans generally regard good-looking singers with suspicion, fearing gorgeous looks are becoming more important than gorgeous singing. There are several opera singers on the scene right now worthy of a spread in Vanity Fair (take a look), but their beauty often means that their singing is held to an even higher standard, and is found wanting by discerning ears.
I think it's wonderful that people are so excited about a singer whose magnetism isn't based on superficial sex-appeal. The pleasure they get from watching Susan Boyle is real, I don't doubt that. But if people want to hear truly great music coming from funny looking people, they can do a lot better. Check out Stephanie Blythe or Dolora Zajick or Ewa Podles or Christine Brewer or Matthias Goerne or Johan Botha, to name just a few extraordinary current voices found in other-than-fashion-model bodies. And don't just stand up and cheer. Really listen to these artists' remarkable gifts, honed through hard work and discipline.
Why not celebrate that for a change?