Maybe most of you have already seen this, but a shy cellular telephone salesman recently became the best thing to appear on British television. “Britain’s Got Talent,” which is the UK’s version of “American Idol,” accidentally hit a goldmine of goodwill after showing Paul Potts singing “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot” (which soccer fans will recognize as Pavarotti’s theme for Italian football).
The video raised an interesting discussion in my extended family about what constitutes a great opera singer, and by transference, a great musician in general. My family and I, in case you haven’t been reading this blog for long, are big snobs, and even bigger snobs when it comes to classical music, having steeped in it since birth.
Most of the comments were of the “he’ll never be a great opera singer, but I cried anyway” variety, which underscores a constant theme of my family’s artistic conversation: what separates the truly great from the magical? When does something cross over from being wonderful to being divine, and does it really matter?
Paul Potts, to any average listener, would seem to have a flawless operatic tenor, and if you had an affinity for opera, you might even well with tears like the ladies in the audience. However, to my family’s ears, we heard the little flaws in timbre, the wavering of pitch when he went for the B-flat, the knowledge that he’d never be able to perform “Turandot” in its entirety forty nights a year. That’s not because we’re mean-spirited, it’s just what we do. My mom can’t saw a scarf joint for doghouse eaves, but she can write a solo for an E-flat triple horn while on a Southwest flight from San Jose to Salt Lake City.
What Mr. Potts represents is one of my favorite kinds of stories: the hibernating talent that almost accidentally gains exposure. He could have been Michael Jordan or Mozart if he’d started earlier, but life got in the way, and nobody came along at the right time to take him to the conservatory. As it was, he performed in some local theater and even traveled to Italy for an amateur class, but Paul Potts looks like Paul Potts, and nobody was going to give him the time of day. It took something like “American Idol” to give him that bizarre third act at 36 years old.
Tessa asked me why he couldn’t still be one of the greats, and I told her I didn’t know enough about opera to tell her exactly. However, I did grow up with singers and dated an amazing soprano in college, and I know there are details to true operatic singing that would stun the layman. There are different “trills” from different countries and time periods. There are entire theories dedicated to the sound that surrounds the sound itself. And there is also that extra charisma that separates someone like Kathleen Battle from that cute girl you saw in “The Mikado.”
Anyway, Potts signed a deal with Simon Cowell, who will probably release a CD of tenor standards. The backlash from know-it-alls will begin, but by that time, maybe Potts can become a regular with a big opera company and see the world. So what if he’s not Pavarotti? He will sing for his supper, and his suppers will be feasts in several languages. And what started Paul Potts down this road? He began to sing to himself because he was bullied in school.