19 April 2009

The Susan Boyle Experience

Chances are good that, by the time I’ve posted this, you’ll have heard of Susan Boyle already. Even the French television news programs have run feature stories on her; my old friend at CBS, Harry Smith, interviewed her by satellite the other morning; bloggers and YouTube mavens have run wild about her. And why not? Her performance on Britain’s Got Talent last weekend was like a scene from a movie — not unlike Slumdog Millionaire, in fact — in which the unlikeliest of underdogs achieves a sensational victory (and on a condescendingly hidebound TV competition, too).

Much has been made of the disdainful reception Ms. Boyle was accorded upon her entrance on the stage: she looked like yet another deluded soul whom the producers had admitted primarily so that she could humiliate herself before a live audience. This is of course a regular feature of these talent competitions (and it’s why I don’t watch them), and also of a great chunk of Britain’s popular culture. About 99.44 percent (roughly) of British print journalism, for example, is devoted to humiliating anyone in or near the public eye: the MP in a sex scandal (thanks, John Profumo, for making those seem significant), the drunken Royal, the naked starlet, the sagging Spice Girl. I suspect part of the reason lies in the country’s class system: resentment of the successful is even more bitter in the U.K. than elsewhere, and scorn for the unsuccessful just about merciless. After all, the unsuccessful are those who dared to transcend their station.

The night of Susan Boyle’s audition, I’ve learned, there was at least one such deluded contestant, a 60-year-old “dancer” who spoke glowingly of Gene Kelly’s artistry yet, when called upon to perform, merely waved his arms over his head — while audience and judges alike hooted at him. There was every reason, almost, to believe that Susan Boyle was another such self-deluded loser. Watching her demonstrate that, on the contrary, she’s a lovely singer who inexplicably kept her talent hidden from view for 47 years — watching her give the judges their comeuppance, rather than receiving hers from them — is wonderfully satisfying.

Bully in Chief: Talent judge Simon Cowell

No matter the rest of the context, however, the real reason Susan Boyle’s entrance was greeted skeptically (at best) was the overriding popular prejudice that only good-looking singers are worth listening to, and that anyone destined to be a star will have achieved fame already by the age of 23. Yet I hasten to point out that this isn’t a question of circumstances dictating the status quo: sex sells, and it’s the popular-entertainment industry that made the rules, without regard to the actual talent pool.

Not to be smug about it, but in Opera World, the rules are different: with remarkably few exceptions, we listen first to the voice. If the singer can also act, so much the better; if she remotely justifies the libretto’s insistence that she’s gorgeous, we celebrate. Good looks in opera are like chocolate sprinkles on top of a sweet, sweet donut. Yet the vast majority of our most cherished pin-ups don’t pass muster outside the opera house. Even the lovely Renéee Fleming, the top-rank soprano who frequently figures in glamorous fashion shoots in mainstream publications, isn’t a conventional beauty: her eyes are wide-set, her silhouette not so lean as a runway model’s, her age closer to Susan Boyle’s than to Miley Cyrus’. As a further illustration, please note that I once witnessed the intriguing phenomenon of Rodney Gilfry, one of our leading “barihunks,” working out in Manhattan: in Opera World, we drool over his blond, muscular radiance, but at the World Gym, nobody noticed him at all. Why bother? We had soap-opera actors and Broadway chorus boys to look at!

Susan Boyle looks perfectly suited to Opera World, then: by our standards, she’s even rather slender and dear. Vocally, however, she belongs rightly to the West End musical theater, an anthem-driven art form that mixes semi-operatic range and grandiose orchestration with Broadway belting and scenic overkill. Looks (and amplification) are important there, yet Sarah Brightman isn’t a conventional beauty, either, and she’s done just fine for herself. Though Ms. Boyle’s future career seems all but guaranteed, English songsmiths will need to write a few roles just for her. Ideally, these will be roles with lots of kissing — something she says she’s never done.

That’s almost sufficient incentive for me to sit through a West End musical, some day, though I’m not likely to start watching television talent competitions any time soon.

1 comment:

Mary Dibbern said...

That is a good take on this, although I think of so many wonderful young classical artists who could use a leg-up by this type of rather mindless promotion that the media dishes out. Rather frustrating, but I did enjoy your level-headed and quite brilliant analysis of it.
How about that Cuban dinner in May?