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.


0 thoughts on “SATB

  1. Cris

    I grew up in a similar family: dad’s a conductor, mom’s an organist; both are college music professors. My dad’s expression for a voice like his is that it “lacks cojones” – which doesn’t lend itself well to a lot of the big classical roles. But it could be fine for oratorio work. So maybe he’s not the best candidate for the next production of the Ring cycle, but he could make a fine Messiah soloist.
    Seeing this clip reminded me of Aretha Franklin and her (alledgedly last minute) stand-in for Pavarotti at the Grammy awards, singing Nessun Dorma. My parents rolled their eyes in disgust and left the room. But despite my own musical sensibilities, I was slightly impressed at how she aquitted herself.
    Nice topic.

  2. NOLAcathie

    I’ve just listened with tears in my eyes, and I’m no opera expert.
    I’m always sympathetic to and attracted to the underdog, the one who stands apart for being different. Paul Potts pulled at my heartstrings. His sweet humble smile at the end says it all…humanity has this amazing capability of catching us completely off guard and surprising us in beautiful ways.
    It’s always more fascinating to be witness to “lumps of coal” slowly and unexpectedly emerging as diamonds than to be blinded by the head-on obvious brilliance of an already perfect diamond. For me the interest lies in the struggle to overcome the expectations of society and our own personal limitations…to break the mold.
    Cheers to the likes of the Paul Potts of the world!

  3. Mom

    Last night I saw a clip of the final contest, which Potts WON. And more important, free of the terror that must have dogged his audition (the clip in your blog) he just nailed Nessun Dorma. The high B at the end was stout, clear, and heart-bending, in addition to being technically better than the one he sang earlier.
    Yes, the backlash will start. And, no he’s not Pavarotti. But if he can find a way to sing for his supper in any venue… maybe a small regional opera company, or whatever, I think he should. As you point out, Ian, we are a family of total musical snobs… about any kind of music, from hip-hop to opera and beyond. And yet every single one of us LOVED this guy. And his singing.
    There’s more to art than technique, as several of the fam pointed out in our many emails to one another.
    And by the way, never mind Pavarotti. Get your hands on the version of Nessun Dorma recorded by Jose Carreras. It’s even available on iTunes for 99 cents, and shows you what happens when a young, promising talent has good teeth, doesn’t get made fun of for singing in middle school, and has the advantage of fabulous teachers and coaches. Pavarotti has an unbelievable vocal instrument, and a natural talent for using it. But Carreras, like Potts, has that inner fire that lights his singing and makes your eyes sting with tears.

  4. ken

    I don’t know jack about opera but he sounded good to me. Unfortunate name though, say it fast (especially in a British accent) and he’s a reviled Cambodian dictator, with an added “s”.
    And not to pick nits, but the UK’s equivalent of American Idol is Pop Idol. Britain’s Got Talent has an American version as well, called–natch–America’s Got Talent.

  5. CL

    >>>He began to sing to himself because he was bullied in school.
    Sure that isn’t a chicken and egg thing?

  6. The other Lee

    I don’t know much about opera, and how much of the performance was his voice versus the awe-inspiring music, but that was really touching.
    Also very funny to me is that while I didn’t understand the words to the opera, I was touched. Then they started playing that gawdawful aerosmith song and while I did understand the words all it touched was a gag reflex.

  7. Sean M

    I ‘heart’ Paul Potts. I don’t have an educated enough ear to know what separates good from great… but it seems that with his [voice combined with his] backstory and a little business/marketing savvy from Simon Cowell and his crew, Mr. Potts will certainly be able to live his dream — simply to perform opera as a career.

  8. chaircrusher

    What I said about Potts in family email thread:
    This guy demonstrates why Bob Dylan, or Janis Joplin, (or Madonna, for that matter) can be as great as Placido Domingo as singers. It’s all
    about being able to communicate something from the inside to others.
    That guy could take a few voice lessons and get more control over his voice, but he will never be a great opera singer. He might be a great performer though. In that video he’s not a great opera singer, but he perfectly communicates the love for and desire to sing opera.
    That is to my way of thinking what’s wrong with how classical musicians are trained. So much emphasis is put on technique that it is as far as most people get. And so much of classical music is so technically hard, that most players never get further than just nailing the notes. You can’t put art and soul into it until technique no longer matters, and you’re just playing the hell out of a piece, without caring about technique.
    I’d much rather see someone play the hell out of a simple piece than just hit the notes of a difficult piece. Technique is empty if that’s all there It’s a skill, like rolling a cigarette one-handed, or juggling.

  9. Alan

    Utterly tangentially, I find myself compelled to note that the CBC ran a radio program based on a fictional Newfoundland radio network that ran on coal. As Newfoundlanders are the funniest people on the planet to whom noting is unapproachable as subject matter, it was appropriate that the station’s cooking show was called “Paul’s Pot”.

  10. craighill

    thanks very much for this post. my ipod now has mom’s carreras recommendation on it which is fantastic. i never thought i’d listen to opera “on purpose”, but then again i never thought i’d see this wedding band on my finger either. chipping away at the peter pan syndrome bit by bit i ‘spose….

  11. Ehren

    Heck, at the end even Pavrotti wasn’t Pavrotti, but people were paying to see somebody famous. It is music, of course, and art, but it’s also entertainment, and there’s more than just talent or looks or even heart or charisma to being entertained. Sometimes spectacle and context and just plain old celebrity will put butts in seats.

  12. xuxE

    i know absolutely nothing about opera, it’s not my thing at all. i’m a beats oriented person so i think of it as a kind of difference your global music source preferences. so for example, western european music origins are not very rhythm oriented, vs. africa or the south pacific or latin america. i gravitate toward percussion and rhythm derived stuff, whether it’s favela rhymes or african dancehall i have a better reference point there than i do with anything else.
    but generally speaking, what i think separates a great artist from the pack is their personal “voice”. doesn’t matter if it’s a violinist or an opera singer or an electric guitar player or an R&B singer. when chaka khan steps up and sings her version of i’m every woman it’s an unmistakeable delivery vs. anyone else. same thing with chuck rainey, one of my favorite bass players, etc. when they perform the music with both accuracy AND an unmistakeable flavor of their own which takes that piece to another level beyond a bland rendition, that is what moves me.
    coincidentally on the music topic, here is a small spam in favor of my husband, a great musician i know and love… his remix of “young folks” is in rotation on 92.7 starting right now! you can hear it here: and if you want to support the extended blog posse it would be awesome if you send an email requesting the “black wangz – young folks remix” to john(at) or call the request line at 866-534-0927.

  13. Salem

    Now those are the kind of tears we all need welling up more often. I don’t feel the least bit cheesy about my reaction. I jumped out of my seat like I was watching Jim Craig deflect the last Russian goal shots in 1980.

  14. salem's little sister

    Congrats Craighill! I saw the wedding announcement in the paper a few weeks back. She’s lovely.

  15. Sean

    His voice would stop him from being one of the greats. I mean, the performances are amazing, and I totally cried, but I was ignoring the technical problems. A person who’s head moves like that with his vibrato is not using a natural vibrato, and that unnatural vibrato can’t be sustained for longer than about fifteen minutes at a stretch without damaging the voice.
    I hate to poo poo the whole thing, because it’s one of the most emotional performances I’ve seen musically, and it was just fantastic. But without the context, without the sweetness of the total amateur getting one shot, he will be judged by his peers and he won’t be as good.
    David Helfgot is an amazing subject for a movie, but his playing isn’t as good as the greats.
    When you listen to Carerras, you get everything. Absolutely everything. Especially the performances from the last fifteen years. Carerras is one of the greats because he has the same passion as Potts, but he has a perfect instrument as well.
    I swear, I’m not a dick. I love this so much. But he’s not gonna live his life as a tenor.

  16. dpdir

    i love this guy. i would use him in an opera in a second. frankly he restores the truth of what it means to be an amateur who does it for LOVE. and its about time the professionals began to add back 1/10th of the heart and vulnerability of this guy.
    its shocking that such simple truth has become SO shocking to us.
    he gives me hope that the train can find the tracks again.

  17. oliver

    I’d never heard of blind challenges or auditions until your post, but I just noticed today a report that women win auditions 50% more often when a screen prevents judges and performers from seeing each other,i.e. compared to when no screen is there.


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