Business of Singing: : Will Success Spoil Charlotte Church?

This is the day of the adolescent girl as vocal star. Most of the juvenile hit makers of the pop world are beyond-Lolita teen strumpets: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore, Jessica Simpson, a collection of strutting blond nymphets. The classical music side has had its own share of kiddie stars, but they’ve almost all been young violinists in puffy-sleeved dresses— cute kids with amazing techniques. Now, thanks to Sony chief Peter Gelb and his “classical crossover” strategy, we’ve been presented with an adolescent vocal star of our own. She’s not quite in the same league as the violinists.

The young Welsh and singing sensation Charlotte Church, 14, has a sweet voice, a sweet face and an endearing way about her on stage. The opposite of Spears and her sexually charged act, she offers a reassuring wholesomeness in her manner and in her repertoire of lushly arranged religious music, folk tunes, patriotic numbers and classical favorites.

She has two collections on compact disc that have gone platinum here and in Europe, Voice of an Angel and Charlotte Church, with a total of nearly 3 million sold around the world. She has a PBS special, also called “Voice of an Angel,” which seems destined to join the Lightweight Music Show Hall of Fame, along with toothy violinist Andre Rieu, overwrought pianist John Tesh and assorted sets of heavily miked tenors. Church has a huge fan base, although very little of it seems to be made up of her peers. Most of her audience is women in their 30s and up.

What Church doesn’t have is a good vocal technique or, apparently, good advice on what and how to sing, and she’s spending her vocal capital at a tremendous rate. What she won’t have in another few years, if she doesn’t get help soon, is a voice.

The evidence is as plain as the fund-raiser on your TV screen. In clasp after lingering clasp, Church displays the quivering chin that bespeaks tension in the jaw and leads to a wobbling voice in relatively short order. For a performer who first came to prominence for the purity of her instrument, that would be disastrous. The evidence is audible as well. An incipient wobble can be heard in some numbers in the television special and is noticeable in her second CD. (That should not be confused with the natural vibrato that most singers acquire as they mature, and which Church is already developing as she hits puberty.) Her tense jaw, along with a lack of proper abdominal support, may also contribute to her tendency to shrill high notes, her intonation problems and her generally inconsistent sound. Add to that the utterly unsuitable repertoire that someone is encouraging her to sing. Her first big hit, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s setting of “Pie Jesu,” may be saccharine, but at least it was written with a slender young voice in mind; the lovely little Welsh lullaby “Suo-Gan” works very well with a treble sound. But more and more of the music she sings is completely wrong for her. “In Trutina,” from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, in which a girl considers the choices of chastity and carnality and comes down in favor of the latter, is an odd choice of repertoire for someone promoted for her childish purity — particularly in light of today’s obsession with pedophilia. Still, at least it’s not musically heavy. Too much of her playlist consists of songs intended for bigger, older voices.

The big nationalistic numbers — those British barn-burners “Jerusalem” and “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” the bombastic, nearly unsingable setting of the great hymn from “Jupiter” in Holst’s The Planets – of her first disc were bad enough, from a child’s vocal standpoint. Now they’ve got the poor kid warbling the “Jewel Song” from Gounod’s Faust and the “Barcarolle” from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. These operatic selections were written for mature women, and she’s too immature in every sense to sing them.

How long can this phenomenon last in any case? Church is marketed as an angelic child with an angelic voice. The religious imagery of her PBS special – the church window at the back of the stage, the scores of candles around the hall, the backlighting with swirling beams of light – underlines the “angel” image.

But Church, though the perky stage persona may be genuine (as the mother of a 13-year-old girl, I have my doubts about that giant teddy bear in the special), can’t stay a little girl forever, even if the appearance of childhood can be extended a bit longer. The question is what direction she will take from here. One possible indicator is her pop anthem “Just wave hello” from her second disc, viewable in its commercial form at the Ford Motor Co. Web site and downloadable as a screensaver. (Don’t use this one at the office, folks. Please.) Pop divas are held to far different vocal standards than are classical singers, and Church can certainly carry a tune. But she says it’s her dream to sing Butterfly and Tosca, and at La Scala, no less. It’s impossible to say if she’ll have the voice for it in another 20 years. For one thing, in listening to a singer whose voice is always amplified, it’s hard to say if she might have anything resembling the requisite vocal size for opera.

What’s certain is that if she doesn’t get competent vocal instruction, and soon, the question will be moot. She started out with a lovely natural voice, but even natural voices need some technical help to stay lovely.

Charlotte Church is earning a great deal of money with her concerts and her CDs; one hopes that the adults who control her affairs are investing it wisely for her. It may well be that Church will be content with wealth and receding fame when her moment is past. But in case she’s not, in case she resists being tossed into the discard pile of child sensations, it would be a good move to spend some of that money on lessons with a good vocal technician. After all, a voice is a terrible thing to waste.