Jackie Evancho: Little girl with the big voice

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Before she became a global Internet phenomenon and videos of her singing popped up on websites from Miami to Malta, Jackie Evancho was simply a little girl in possession of an incredibly big voice.

The spotlight is about to get a bit brighter. Jackie, 10, a fifth-grader in the Pine-Richland School District, returns to the stage Tuesday for the semifinals of NBC's hit show, "America's Got Talent."

The top five from each semifinal advance by viewer vote to a Sept. 7 show. From there, the four highest vote-getters perform Sept. 14 and the winner will be announced the next day.

Sure, Jackie's cute as a button, but cute will only get you so far. It's the voice -- a stunningly mature soprano voice -- that's created all the buzz.

"She does have an unusually adult feel for the repertoire," said Claudia Benack, a singer and assistant professor of musical theater at Carnegie Mellon University.

"She is compelling," said Christopher Hahn, general director of the Pittsburgh Opera. "It is quite unusual to hear a young girl with that level of warmth and roundness."

"America's Got Talent" producers saved her performance for last when she debuted on Aug. 10, a tiny blonde in a bright pink dress who sang the Puccini aria "O Mio Babbino Caro."

What followed was the sort of viral, "Did-you-see-this?" craziness only recently possible in the age of YouTube.

Her video performance was seemingly everywhere the next day. Foreign news service websites, chat boards and talk shows; Regis Philbin mentioned her on "Live With Regis and Kelly." Apple's iTunes quickly promoted Jackie's CD, "Prelude to a Dream," and it became a best-seller on the classical lists. ("Prelude to a Dream" is no longer available for purchase, said her father, Mike Evancho. "Because the CD was recorded about a year and half ago and her current voice no longer sounds like what it did then [due to vocal maturity...], we decided to withdraw "Prelude to a Dream" and will be concentrating on new material as part of her progress.")

After the girl's performance two weeks ago, some commentators were even calling her the next Susan Boyle, the frumpy church volunteer with the angelic voice discovered last year on "Britain's Got Talent."

Contestants on "America's Got Talent" advance through viewer voting, and Jackie originally earned her place on the show via a YouTube contest.

YouTube videos shot at home with Jackie singing everything from "Phantom of the Opera" to "You Are My Sunshine" with her older brother, Jake, show a charming little girl with a surprisingly powerful voice.

NBC restricts contestants and their immediate families from talking to the media in the weeks leading up to the next round. But the family's home videos speak volumes to her talent.

"I think she's very good, and in fact I think I prefer her simple, unamplified numbers, the things she did in her house [for YouTube]," Ms. Benack said.

"She takes a classical piece and makes it friendly and accessible," said Tim Janis, a composer, musician, conductor and arranger who worked with Jackie last fall on one of his PBS "Celebrate America" programs.

Jackie will sing in Mr. Janis' holiday production Dec. 2 at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

"Her voice is so pure and natural, there's no flaw in it," he said. "People say 'I can hear her potential coming,' but no, it's here, it's now."

Steve Rickenback, Jackie's music teacher at Eden Hall Upper Elementary in Richland, said he remembers the day back in first or second grade when Jackie asked if she could sing for the class.

"I said, 'Sure,' and she gets up and says 'I'm going to sing from 'Phantom of the Opera.' OK, this is interesting. ...

"Once she started to sing, I was blown away."

What makes it possible for someone so tiny to soar in what Jackie and her family call the "classical crossover" style?

"Her brain," said Clark Rosen, director of the University of Pittsburgh Voice Center. "It starts with your chest and lungs, the voicebox, the palate, the nose, lips ... but it's how our body puts it all together, how it's all coordinated by the brain -- that's how even little people can make big sounds."

Dr. Rosen estimates 70 percent of his practice involves professional singers, but he sees his share of younger performers, too. Take a group of singers who share similarities in physical makeup such as size and condition of vocal cords, for example, and the star is the one with the wiring.

"Very few people are gifted enough to have that naturally, or with subsequent learning, to create a voice we'd love to hear," Dr. Rosen said.

At the same time, some people are blessed with great vocal cords and other physical attributes, but that doesn't mean they have singing talent. He compared this to a novice trying to play Yo-Yo Ma's cello.

"It's a great instrument, but it's how the brain puts it all together that's the difference."

Of course, proper training helps. Each spring, Dr. Rosen said, he sees teenage girls who develop problems after a few weeks of belting out songs in their high school musicals.

"There are a couple of styles of singing that are harder [on the body] and more potentially injurious. Power singing, what people call 'belting,' is always at the top of the list."

Jackie is not a belter, Ms. Benack said.

"She is not screaming, a la 'Annie.' She is using her 'head' register, not her 'chest' register. A lot of pop music and musical theater singers use their chest register and that's the one a lot of people try to take too high.

"She sings from the healthy part of her voice."

Ms. Benack also praised Jackie's interpretation of songs: "She sings to the important part of the phrase, and then backs off. That's instinctual."

If there is any part of Jackie's singing that will improve with age, she said -- and it's not a glaring deficiency -- it is her relatively short breath line. "She takes breaths some times where an adult would not, but that's just because she's young and little," Ms. Benack said.

Sometimes, it's easy to forget that this singer, with her eyes on winning $1 million and headlining a show in Las Vegas, is still a child.

Mr. Janis, who is based in York, Maine, has worked with thousands of children around the country for the Celebrate America series, and he's deeply involved in raising funds and awareness through his music, both here and abroad.

He said that the pressures of being in the spotlight can be intense for singers of any age, but there are ways to combat it.

"There are things you can do as you develop your career," he said. "If you keep grounded, and use the gift to help and inspire people, make those connections ... those things can help maintain a balance."

Last December, Mr. Janis invited Jackie to perform at a concert in his home town of Greenwich, Conn. The day before, he took some of the cast to a nursing home where his mother had worked when he was a kid.

"I was playing my set, and everybody applauded, and then Jackie comes on, and everybody there was just mesmerized. There were two newspaper people there and the next day they wrote how Janis was upstaged by Jackie Evancho," he said, laughing.

"OK, it's one thing to get upstaged at Carnegie Hall, but in a nursing home? You just don't expect that."

on the web

For a video of Jackie Evancho performing, go to www.post-gazette.com.

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478. First Published August 30, 2010 4:00 AM


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