I don't watch beauty pageants (or, for that matter, awards shows). They always seemed to me to be sort of high schoolish popularity contests. In college, there were a couple of young women who participated in beauty pageants. Yes, they were remarkably beautiful; but they were also smart, hard-working, and talented. Clearly the women who do pageants are anything but the soulless, plastic Barbie Dolls they are represented to be in some circles. However, they're presented in such a way that despite the real and significant accomplishments many of them have, the most important thing about them is STILL how they look in a bikini. That's a problem. But it's not what has me up in arms today.
There's been some furor over the most recent Miss America competition. First, there were all the ignorant racists (why is it that these people are so inarticulate and cannot seem to spell, punctuate or use proper grammar? Why are they so proud of being stupid?) who had embarrassing public fits on Twitter and the like over the apparently astonishing fact that some Americans are brown. And not only did a stunningly beautiful brown American with an actual talent win, but she beat out an equally beautiful blonde, white National Guardsman whose real talent was not eligible for the competition.
And here's where I get annoyed. Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, is clearly a very accomplished and admirable young woman. She's serving our country in the National Guard. She is smart and articulate.
What she is not is a trained singer; and when her true talent of archery was not deemed eligible because the pageant has a "no projectiles" rule, she went to singing "by default". That's a direct quote. And she didn't just pick anything to sing; she chose to sing a fragment of "Nessun dorma" from Turandot, by Puccini. She learned it from YouTube.
As a professional singer, who has spent and continues to spend thousands of hours and dollars honing my art, I find this personally insulting. Let me explain why. It's not the poor singing, poor choice of repertoire, or even the fact that the audience applauds it as if it were something wonderful. She's not any worse than many other talent show contestants with limited (if any)training; there's an actual voice there and if she were to put the time and effort into it, I believe she could offer a respectable performance, even of this ill-advised choice. Had she made a better repertoire choice, those of us in the profession might not be criticizing her singing so much. Believe it or not, I have a great deal of respect for any singer, professional or avocational, regardless of their abilities --- as long as I can see that they have put the time in, as my friend Susan Eichhorn Young says, to hone their craft.
But I can't entirely blame Miss Kansas for the poor repertoire choice, either. Singers who don't know any better will often choose something they perceive as flashy over something simple that they can do really well. Nessun Dorma (or at least, pieces of it) has been co-opted by pop singers ever since Pavarotti got sick and asked the incomparable Aretha Franklin to take over for him at the 1998 Grammy Awards. What Miss Franklin delivered was not opera, but it was grand. It was a magnificent performance by any standards, because Miss Franklin is a magnificent artist.
Aretha Franklin has put the time and effort into developing her talent and becoming a magnificent artist. Theresa Vail has not, and yet she (and, one assumes, her misguided advisers) thought it was okay for her to stand up on national television, in the nation's most high profile beauty pageant, and screech through bits of an opera aria which she herself admitted she learned by watching YouTube videos. Isn't that rather disrespectful to the tradition of Miss America, to think you can just throw something together and it will be presentable?
So I do question why Theresa Vail did not seek out professional help to study --- even if all she had was five weeks --- and choose repertoire that shows off the talent and ability she has right now. That, to me, is hubris. That, to me as a professional, is insulting. I wonder what Vail would think if an acquaintance breezily told her that she was entering a national archery competition in five weeks, having learned to shoot by watching Robin Hood? And if Vail did, indeed, seek out professional guidance ... well, all I can say is that she either got some bad advice, or chose to go against good advice.
I am a big fan of avocational singers. My program, Spotlight on Opera, has welcomed them right alongside aspiring and young professionals for over seven years, providing training and performance opportunities they might not get anywhere else. As the name of of the organization suggests, everybody gets a chance to be center stage. My faculty and I work very hard to help ALL our singers find repertoire that they can shine in, and all of them know that we will not let them get up on stage and sing just anything. It has to be something that is appropriate for their particular talent.
My private voice studio has always been filled, equal parts, with church choir singers to professionals to everything in between, and I love them all equally. I once spent six months teaching a young lady to sing, from scratch, a creditable version of "Fly Me to the Moon" so she could surprise her new husband at their wedding reception. I once "fired" a student with God-given golden vocal cords because he couldn't be bothered to develop his talent. One of the best auditions I have heard to date was an undergraduate soprano who sang "Caro mio ben" (for the uninitiated, this is a very simple piece from the standard beginners' book and for that reason, despite being a lovely piece, quite hackneyed); it was musical, it was well-studied; it was well-suited to her current level and showed off all that was good about her voice and nothing that wasn't so good.
I do not care what your talent level is, or what your ability level is --- if you put in the work, and if you care enough about the art form and the craft to study it and respect it, and if you are honestly seeking to do it well --- then you have my respect.
But if you are a selfish performer who just wants to force an audience to endure your rendition of something you have no business presenting; that you have not put the time and effort into learning properly and fitting into your voice; or which you have, because of your current limitations, no hope of presenting respectably --- then I cannot respect you.
I'm not saying Theresa Vail is selfish. I think she's ignorant, at least where singing is concerned. What she did was disrespectful to the art form she clearly did not bother to find out anything about, and as a professional, I can't get behind that. Opera is a highly developed, if popularly misunderstood, genre. There's no doubt that some people will read this and come away with the idea that I'm just another "opera snob" (though, in my personal experience, most people who believe opera is snobby and elitist have never been to one and don't really know what it's all about, let alone how the business works). But I don't accept that it's snobby to uphold high standards for my industry, or to cringe when someone thinks they can just pick it up in a matter of weeks and offer a respectable performance in a highly public forum.
I want avocational singers to love and to sing opera. I want them to perform it. I also want them to make it a real avocation, in which they research and study and play with it and find out, to the best of their ability, what it really means.
I do not want them to think that makes them artistically equal to someone who has made it a profession. Amateur singing is a valuable pursuit and worthy of respect, but it should not be confused with the work of a pro. Opera already suffers an image problem, and it hurts the art form when someone who isn't up to standards is presented and treated as if they are a star (and this happens not just in opera; all these popular competition shows delight in propogating the myth of the overnight sensation; it's damaging in many ways and NOT just to the various art forms).
This is not the standard the general public needs to be told is acceptable, let alone professional. And I would argue that when you are presenting something as your "talent" on national TV in a high profile pageant, your audiences should expect a certain standard of ability and execution; and if you cannot deliver that, you must understand and accept that you will be subject to critcism, and justifiably so. Heck, it doesn't matter if you're on TV or in a piano bar. When you put your product out in front of an audience, you are asking for feedback, and it's not always going to be good or even nice. Sing your heart out in the shower or in your living room, but if you invite an audience, you have made a contract with them, and you have made your performance about THEM, not you. It is now your job to entertain them. If they don't like it, that is YOUR mistake on some level because you have failed to reach them.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having some discernment. People these days act like it's a bad thing to have standards. Having standards, having education, understanding that we are not, in fact, every one of us special snowflakes in every single regard --- this is unfashionable and damaging thinking. Some people are better at some things than others --- because they have worked harder, because God gave them the talent and they developed it, because that's just the way it happens to be. There are always going to be those folks who want so very badly to be champions who get paid to play video games, or NFL quarterbacks, or standup comedians, or rock stars; and no matter how much they work at it, they just can't get there.
Does that mean they should stop doing what they love? HELL NO. They should do the crap out of it, every chance they get. Does it mean they should stand up in front of the broader public and expect to be received as if they were at the top of the field, or cut special breaks due to their shortcomings? Sorry, but no. As I frequently tell young singers, it doesn't matter if you don't have much on your resume or if you can't yet do XYZ. The whole secret to being successful in what you do is to choose the appropriate opportunity for your special bundle of talent, development, and ability as it exists right this very minute. And you absolutely should take risks, and dip your toes in deeper waters --- but if you do, and a shark nibbles on your toe, you can't cry about it. Bandage it up, and go work at it until you can wade right in and kick that shark's fishy ass. Or stay in the shallow end. Either is a valid choice.
Theresa Vail. I wish her well. I admire her self-confidence, her beauty, her service to our country and even the bud of singing talent she has demonstrated. I hope that, if she is really interested in singing, she will get some voice lessons from someone who knows what they're talking about and will help her develop her talent, as well as some taste and discernment in that area. Also, I think it sucks that the Miss America Pageant wouldn't let her show her archery skills, because THAT would have rocked and if she had been allowed to do something she does really well instead of being forced to a "default", perhaps she would have won. (That's a whole 'nother blog post, BTW --- how old-fashioned is it for every woman to be expected to have a talent that can be presented on stage --- something that is, one presumes, acceptably "ladylike"?).
But I am not going to apologize for being one of the sharks nibbling Miss Vail's perfectly pedicured toes. She chose to splash in my ocean. If she learns to swim, then I'll welcome her.