Sunday, December 29, 2013

What The Phantom of the Opera really means for singer Jackie Evancho

Singing phenomenon Jackie Evancho saw The Phantom of the Opera (the movie of it) when she was just seven years old. Before then, according to her parents, she was a perfectly normal child with no obvious special abilities, the second of four, growing up in suburban middle-class America, in the household of a security camera franchise owner and a former nurse.

What happened after that has been recounted in countless newspaper articles written after she became a national celebrity when she took second place on America's Got Talent in 2010.

But I haven't read anything that tried to explain her continuing intense relationship to Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical melodrama. Personally I prefer Spamalot, a Monty Pythonesque parody of hyperventilating productions like Webbers', with numbers like "This is the song that goes on too long." Still, while playing a recent performance of Phantom as I edited underwater photos I'd taken on a recent trip to Indonesia, I realized why Jackie Evancho relates to Phantom thematically.

Because thematically, Phantom is about a talented young woman torn between conflicting life path choices: a normal life with an adoring, handsome young man, or sacrificing all that for the life of an artist.

For every performing artist there are probably dozens--even hundreds of people who are comparably talented, but who are unwilling to give up the quiet joys of normal life.

I know someone like that. A very talented classical pianist, easily good enough to be a recording artist. But instead of living a life of touring, performing, living out of a suitcase, he chose to marry, settle down, and have three children while pursuing an academic/business career that didn't require constant travel. He does perform locally and does a bit of musical travel, but he'll never be a world-famous concert pianist.

For a singer like Jackie Evancho to pursue her art she will have to travel around the world, performing in concerts. And even now, at age 13, she is touring and performing a lot--though nowhere near the schedule of an adult performer in her field. Even though her family works hard to balance her career with her "normal" life, there's no question that she has less "normal" life than any other kid she knew at school.

In interviews she has shown herself to be sanguine about the trade-offs required to pursue her dreams.

And in terms of her relationship with Phantom of the Opera, the fact that she's now 13 and not 23 is irrelevant. Even if she waited a decade, the choice is the same: like the Christine character of Phantom, Jackie can't achieve artistic fulfillment without giving up much of the normal life most people experience.

She could be a music teacher and have a normal life. But she seeks a place at the very top of her art, and that precludes the kind of life most Americans lead.

Phantom of the Opera couches this life choice in a hyperventilating sort of way, with the life of the artist embodied in a talented but murderous psychopath. The normal life is embodied more realistically, in the form of a nice (yawwwwn...) guy who wants her to be his beloved wifey. 

Critics of young performing artists lament the loss of a normal childhood for such people. Of course they never lament the lost of the powerful joys of performance, of high artistic achievement, for able kids whose parents keep them off the stage. And they don't seem to realize that the choice remains at every stage of life.

So while Jackie Evancho seems to have first started thinking about this choice at age 7--at least on some level--she just got a head start on the issue all elite artists must deal with.

And which, under the cheesy theatrics, Phantom of the Opera deals with.

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