LOS ANGELES — At least we can call her a teenager, although just barely.
International classical singing phenomenon Charlotte Church has been 13 years old for a few months now. But before crossing that threshold, she'd already accumulated a slew of record-breaking milestones that would be the envy of any diva at any age, any time: The Welsh soprano has sung for the pope and the Prince of Wales (not to mention TV hosts Rosie O'Donnell and David Letterman).
Her debut album "Voice of an Angel" (Sony Classical) topped the British record charts, landing her a spot in the Guiness Book of World Records for the youngest classical singer to have a No. 1 record.
Her repertoire is eclectic, from Cesar Franck's "Panis Angelicus" and Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Pie Jesu" to Engelbert Humperdinck's "When at Night I Go to Sleep" and the traditional "Danny Boy."
But it's not her choice of material that propels the fascination with this child-woman who began singing at age 3. In part, it's the combination of pan-flute purity in her voice that suggests childhood with a hint of the mature instrument to come. Listen to her voice and you hear the haunting clarity and poignancy that traditionally has been the domain of the boy soprano, a treasured creature of the classical world, valued in no small part for its brief duration. For this teen prodigy, with the potential of a lifelong career, it's the whole package that has made her an overnight sensation.
Precocious child and mature performer
"What's there to think about?" intones Paul Burger, chairman of Sony Classical who signed her to a five-CD contract after hearing her sing. "This is just so compelling," he says in an interview that is now part of a PBS video of her performances with the London Symphony Orchestra, its chorus, and the Welsh Male Voice Choir. Her presentation is a perfectly spun mix of the precocious child and mature adult performer. She drags a huge white teddy bear onstage, which she introduces to the audience with all the guilelessness of a toddler and a beloved granny. "This is my buppy," she giggles as she sits him on the stage in front of an august group of black-clad adult musicians.
Not finished, she digs around in a large shopping bag and produces more stuffed animals as well as her very own video camera, which she trains at the audience and announces, "Now I'm filming you!"
After one more giggle for good measure, she straightens up and announces, as if to chastise the gathering for behaving so childishly, "Now, I think we should get on with the concert." At which point, the cherry-velvet-clad teen with the Alice-in-Wonderland hairdo opens her mouth to sing with all the confidence of a woman four times her age.
In a transatlantic phone call, she is all professionalism when describing her future plans. "I should like to be an opera singer and sing all the big voice parts," she says. But when asked which of the serious vocal compositions she's presently tackling, she slips easily into little girl: "Mum, do you remember the names of any of those arias I'm working on now?" she yells into another room.
'I've never been pushed. This is all my idea.'
Her parents appear to be at a loss as to where their only child acquired such drive. Her mother, Maria, who runs a public-housing project in her hometown of Cardiff, Wales, notes only that this has been the young Miss Church's plan from the start. "I've never been pushed. This is all my idea," Charlotte says, laughing. Listening to her easy confidence, it's not hard to believe this is true. The eager singer's first big break came in 1997 after she phoned a local talent show, sang for the producers over the phone line, and landed a spot on the air. It only took a few more on-air appearances before she had big-league attention and the berth at Sony Classical.
Her appeal crosses age and gender boundaries. Charlotte herself says that she receives letters from all ages (although mostly female). Not surprisingly, she has her critics. "Choir girl lite," said the Washington Post, while the Chicago Tribune suggested that her arrival portends for the classical world "a poplike obsession with youth."
Without question, she is riding on the success of the wave of wildly popular crossover classical performers such as Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and the "three tenors": Placido Domingo, Jos Carerras, and Luciano Pavarotti. As for the future, she is simply too young to predict the development of a voice, but Charlotte maintains that she is preparing for a long career in music. "I don't sing more than an hour a day, and my teacher and I won't work on material that strains my voice," she says.
That said, as with all media phenomenons, much like the voice of boy soprano that she brings onstage during her PBS show, it's the present that counts. She's hard at work on her next album, to be released by the end of the year. After all, she won't be 13 for long.