Wunderkind or Fallen Angel?

The glare of the public eye can be disastrous for talented children. But sometimes the gamble pays off

Music
Jackie Evancho:Ten-year-old star of "America's Got Talent" in 2010 whose fans behave as though her performances are above criticism

A child blinks into television lights. Nine years old and small for her age, her sober expression mocks the synthetic grins and trivial putdowns of the toothy celebrities who are to judge her. The conversation is short; there are no jokes to be milked from an infant. Asked what she intends to sing, the little girl names an opera aria, “O Mio Babbino Caro“, mouthing each syllable with a strong Dutch accent and exaggerated care. Celebrity mouths are seen to pucker: ooh, opera, posh.

A minute later, amid pinch-me shrieks from the studio audience, the camera pans back to the judges, their painted lips mouthing, “Wow!”, “Amazing!”. The stunt has worked, again. Another star is born. Millions click on YouTube. Ching go the tills.

No point in naming the girl at this point. A dozen epiphanies of this nature have occured on global TV in franchised brands of Got Talent, X Factor and lesser variants of the Roman emperor’s raised finger. At this late moment in human decadence, it appears that nothing quite moves the public heart as the sight and sound of a bare-kneed infant simulating adult actions and emotion, set to music.

A telephone salesman might pass in the murk for Pavarotti, a Scottish spinster may credibly “Dream a dream”, but when the votes are in and the last potato has left the living-room couch, what the collective unconscious registers is the act of an angelic child performing far above and beyond her wit and experience.

I use the adjective with reluctance. Angels are what the headline writers call Amira Willighagen, nine-year-old winner of Holland’s Got Talent whose opera album is out this month, and her predecessor Jackie Evancho, runner-up at ten years old in the 2010 America’s Got Talent show and a classical chart-topper ever since.

The noun places them in an ethereal realm, above criticism. Writers who review child performers by means of rational analysis, and voice teachers who use genre comparison, find themselves abused online for the twin sins of denying a heavenly being and attacking a vulnerable child. The God-child myth is alive and well in 21st-century America, operating in an informal coalition with the child-protection lobby. Our critical faculty has been dangerously disabled.

My colleague Tim Page was forced into virtual hiding after writing this cool-headed assessment of Jackie Evancho in the Washington Post: “Her interpretation seems little more than imitation — almost ventriloquism — with scarcely a trace of originality. She is comfortable only within a small range. The rest of the time, she is reaching hard for high notes or scooping for low ones. Her phrasing is shaky and unsure; her anxiety is palpable; there is nothing ‘easy’ or free-flowing about her performance. All in all, figuratively speaking, one has the sense that she is trying very hard to fill gigantic shoes that may well fit her someday but could easily wreck the way she walks if she persists in wearing them now.”

Tim’s observations are shrewd, his predictions faultless. No singer in modern times has ever made an opera career from a childhood launch. These children are not opera divas in the making, whatever else they may achieve in the future. Some child singers go on to great things, others to grim ends. Michael Jackson and his siblings made epic pop careers. Shirley Temple became US ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. Charlotte Church, sprung as a classical soprano, is now a media star. Lena Zavaroni hit anorexia at 13 and died at 35.

Child singers aside, an early start is considered obligatory for instrumental stars. Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Rubinstein and Daniel Barenboim gave their debut recitals at the age of seven. Martha Argerich was six when she first appeared with an orchestra. None was harmed by it; all led rich public, personal and intellectual lives.

But these five were incubators of a rare talent, a gift that strikes perhaps twice in an epoch. Weep for the others who were extolled in short pants, forgotten at puberty.

Take the Menuhins. Yehudi was the north star of a family constellation. His sisters, Yaltah and Hephzibah, were cut adrift by the gulf between Yehudi’s comet and their own slightly-above-average abilities, an unbridgeable disparity. Yaltah once told me she had always longed for a normal childhood.

Heifetz, the outstanding violinist of his lifetime (“10 per cent better than any of us,” Isaac Stern would say), was mocked in George and Ira Gershwin’s “Jascha, Mischa, Toscha, Sascha” as an identikit product of the St Petersburg fame school. Wrong about Jascha, the Gershwins were right in dismissing the others as makeweights. Mischa Elman was a regular on the concert circuit, but the names of Toscha Seidl and Sascha Jacobsen survive as warnings from history that the best are mortal enemies of the good. When parents hear their child hailed as the next Heifetz, they should think long and hard if he or she is not about to become the next Toscha or Sascha.

Classical music thrives, every bit as much as commercial music, on the cultivation of unrealistic expectations. Classical child stars come these days with tiger moms. The pianist Helen Huang cut her debut album at nine. Conrad Tao claims to have played a recital at four.

The Japanese-American violinist Midori, in her German autobiography, exposes with great candour the downside of a prodigy upbringing. Picked out by Zubin Mehta at 11, acclaimed by Stern as the finest child he had heard, Midori nearly died of anorexia in her early twenties. She went on to take a master’s in psychology and create an educational foundation for deprived children.

Now in her forties, Midori refuses to denounce the child route to adult stardom. For one in a million, it may be the only way. Gratifying as it may be for armchair moralists to denounce the ruination of childhood, there is always a chance that this child, this special child, might — just might — be the one. I am listening to a Chinese girl, Serena Wang, play the Chopin C sharp minor Fantasy. It’s out this month on the Channel Classics label. Serena is nine years old. She will play in Paris this autumn, New York next year. Believe your ears.