Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, August 13, 2001

Welsh singer Charlotte Church performed with
the Honolulu Symphony Saturday night.

Angel’s voice showing
human strain

By Ruth O. Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin

It wasn't the usual Honolulu Symphony concert: jumbo screens overhead, cameramen filming (one even in the orchestra), mood lights splayed across a large backdrop screen, mikes, amps, wires running everywhere, sound and video crews ensconced in the royal box.

It wasn't the usual symphony crowd, either: A broad mix of young and old, jeans, muumuu and silk strolled Blaisdell Arena carrying wine and pasta or soda and hot dogs. More than 5,300 people (the Concert Hall only holds about 2,200) came to listen.

Object of their attention was acclaimed 15-year-old Welsh singer Charlotte Church, whose "Voice of an Angel" CD, taped when she was only 12, has outsold Madonna. Church has performed all over the world and is here on vacation for a week or two, which is why Honolulu had the opportunity to hear her.

Church is a remarkably self-possessed young woman, introducing her own songs and acknowledging musicians, but little-girl comments abound: "It's wicked to be here. I've got a burnt nose"; "My shoes hurt, so I took them off"; "It's a really, really cool song."

Her youth still works for her, as in "Tonight" from "West Side Story" and her familiar "Pie Jesu," but only just: She has begun that difficult transition of adolescence, her giggles at odds with her blossoming maturity.

Vocal prodigies, unlike other prodigies, perform with unfinished and ever-changing instruments, and a voice coming into maturity is a fragile thing, ever in danger of being permanently damaged. The voice Church is singing with now is not the same voice she recorded on her CDs, nor the same one she will have next year. To maintain her career after adolescence, she will have to find a new way to sing, just as she will have to find a new way to relate to her audiences. Unfortunately, fame does not allow much breathing space.

On Saturday, Church sang a variety of works, some longtime favorites from her CDs, such as "Pie Jesu," "My Lagan Love" and "Danny Boy," and others new, such as "Can't Help Lovin' That Man of Mine," and "Papa, Can You Hear Me?"

When she was 12, Church's voice was entirely that of a child: one timbre throughout her ranges, with effortless highs. Now, her voice is separating into distinct ranges that she will have to work to even out; in fact, there was some sign that her voice is growing faster than her control of it.

Church has said she is tired of hearing critics worry about her voice because, after all, they cannot know how she is training. That is true, but there are now audible signs of strain that she and her coach need to address. Her breathing sits high in her chest so she cannot support fully, forcing her to breathe often, and her inhalations are now audible, a sign of a tight throat. The tension in her jaw causes it to shake when she reaches for a high note, and her vibrato occasionally wavers out of control. Her high notes, once so free, are now forced and acquiring an edge.

If Church chooses a career in popular singing, none of this may matter, but in the long run these details can destroy a voice, and no one wants to hear a voice sacrificed for commercial gain.

Who is looking out for this voice? And who is choosing her songs? "Pie Jesu" worked so well precisely because it was written for a young voice -- a boy soprano, to be exact -- and Church's voice is getting too old for that. But "If I Loved You," "Bali Ha'i" and "Summertime" are too far in the other direction; those songs are difficult even for fully mature voices. And her technical tour de force, "La Pastorella," needs to be shelved until her voice is more relaxed and settled in.

Church's best selections were the songs she loves that lie somewhere in the middle: "The Water Is Wide," "Danny Boy" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water." She understands her songs intuitively, has wonderful emotional depth and knows how to convey that to an audience, so even "mature" songs, such as "Bridge," work well for her.

Church shows great promise, both as singer and as performer. It's a fun game to play prophet, but how she will sound 10 years from now is really anyone's guess. It depends on how her vocal cords mature, something she cannot control, as well as on how she is trained and how she uses her voice. Let's wish her well.

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