Children, especially in the Latin world, can sometimes have extraordinary singing voices; voices which can take them on to operatic fame, if the child is properly trained, and if –a BIG “if”—the voice does not break and drop drastically in puberty. The most famous such instance for a man would be Beniamino Gigli, a boy soprano who basically just kept singing the way he did as a boy. Fate (coupled with what would turn out to be thyroid problems and diabetes) kept his beautiful boy soprano voice in shape through puberty, and he went on to his extraordinary destiny. This does not, of course, happen to most child singers.
A brief look at the best known film of the enormously popular child singer José Jiménez Fernández, otherwise known as Joselito, is illustrative of many things at once. His biography is easily consulted, and there is no need for me to repeat well known stories. Joselito was a film triumph, with all that can mean. For Mario Lanza it was disaster, and others have suffered similar fates. But they were adults. Joselito made his first film at a very tender age indeed. He grew up in Franco’s Spain and his first films appeared in the mid-50’s. He was a beautiful little boy with an astonishing voice. He did not sing as a boy soprano through any kind of church training; he is not singing on the edge of the vocal chords, the way a boy being trained in a choir school would. His voice does not “hoot.” He is singing full voice, albeit the voice of a child. This at once gives it an astonishing squillo for a child, even if tinged with nasality. This nasality, however, is intentional; that’s how flamenco singers navigate the fioratura. If the last word of a phrase does not lend itself naturally to nasality, the sound ão [as in a cat’s meow] is added to nasalize it.
In the first clip, I invite you to reflect on how utterly foreign everything you see and hear is to anything known in the Anglo-American tradition. In the first place, a child of this age singing a love song to a little girl would be on the far, far side of propriety, something like the titillating “Let’s play house” kinds of things Shirley Temple did back in the 30’s. Joselito was from southern Spain, and the gypsy flamenco music is sui generis—but what vocalism it makes possible! People coming to the traditional music of southern Spain for the first time always think this music is the result of Arabic influence. It is not. It is gypsy music, which makes it ultimately, as near as anyone can tell, form northern India, a very long time ago. I’ll translate the piece—it helps to know what he is saying to her. “Once a nightingale at first light/was trapped under a flower/far from his lady love./ Awaiting his return, in her nest/she saw the afternoon grow late/and at night, near mad with love/ she sang to the river:/ “Where has my love gone?/ Why does he not return?/ What flaming rose has entrapped him?/ O sparkling brook/wandering through reed and bush/tell him that roses have thorns!/ Tell him that there are no colors that I do not possess/I am dying of love!/ Tell him to return!) We are in a very sentimental world here, but that fact has its own importance. I warn you—break out the tissues, and, if you are diabetic, proceed with the utmost caution:) All the selections this time are quite short—please see them through to the end, which is where the vocal fireworks always are in this kind of music:
Amazing singing from a child! Notice the easy emotion and the uninhibited acting, which is in fact not bad at all. Somehow this works, at least in 1958 Spain. It would not work AT ALL in the Anglo American world, and probably not even in modern Spain.
Now, to throw yet another spatula of emotion onto the situation, I need to tell you that the little girl is blind, and his love for her—while remaining a boy/girl love—will turn out to have many spiritual qualities (this is Spain). The following clip, in a church, features our little hero, girl in hand, pleading before a local statue of Jesus for help for his little blind friend. The singing is near cantorial in nature, and is another amazing piece of child vocalism, more refined than the first example. The nasality is now gone…this is not a popular song. His vocal control and concentration here are admirable. This kind of intense and sentimental religious fervor, btw, with heavy gypsy overlay, has no counterpart in the rest of Europe that I am aware of
The purity and control of Joselito’s singing here is the kind of thing that might have served him well had he made a steady diet of it. He was, however, in the hands of unscrupulous managers who exploited him mercilessly, and he never had the chance to study properly. A tragedy in the making, to be sure.
How does the film end? Did you really have any doubt? The final clip, very short, shows our little hero singing another popular song, La Luz de tus Ojos (The Light of your Eyes). You will of course notice who enters the proceedings, and to whom the song gets directed, and what has happened. This is possibly the best piece of singing, considering all factors, in the movie. In your imagination, fast forward about 15 years, and you can see this, very easily, in the opera house. All the elements are already present. Notice the high note at the end, especially, bearing in mind that this boy is not trying to sing soprano He is singing with his natural voice. The point of articulation in Spanish is much more “forward” and much “higher” than it is in English, and there are only five singable sounds in the language. Spanish has the most conservative vocal system of all the Romance Languages, and this fact greatly favors a young, high voice, and keeps it high much longer, as opposed to English, which can be death to a young voice with classical tenor potential.
Put away the tissues now, it’s over.
One can talk endlessly about vocal technique, about the rules of effective singing, about training the tenor voice especially, about acting, and all the rest. But when you are talking about sentimental Italian opera, (how’s that for redundancy?) the simple fact is that, at least historically speaking, it makes a very great difference where you were born, when you were born, what language you grew up speaking, and how expansive the emotional climate of your culture is. If all these are right, the vocal and musical training is all that is left. It they are wrong, all the training in the world is seldom enough.