‘Holland’s Got Talent’ judges Gordon Heuckeroth, Chantal Janzen and Dan Karaty were blown away when the very last audition featured the unique talent of nine-year-old opera singer Amira Willighagen from Nijmegen. They initially assumed she would present a K3 ‘kiddies’ song, until she revealed she’d be singing opera. They were certainly not expecting a big, powerful and beautiful voice to come from such a very little girl, as can be seen by their delighted and bemused reactions. Her dazzling performance of Puccini’s ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’, from the opera ‘Gianni Schicchi’, was even more remarkable since she’d had no vocal training and had taught herself to sing by imitating online ‘YouTube’ videos.
Eerily evocative of ‘La Divina’, Maria Callas, the purety and nerveless maturity of her delivery captivated panel and audience alike and earned her over three million ‘YouTube’ views within a week, (currently 16 million). Earning a standing ovation from the audience and winning the hearts of a nation, little Amira beamed from ear-to-ear as she was awarded a coveted ‘Golden Ticket’, earning her a place in the competition’s upcoming Live Shows.
Gordon: “Amira Willighagen, nine years old, they say that old souls live on in people and when I hear you sing, you sound just like Maria Callas, who is unfortunately no longer with us. Your voice is so pure and so beautiful. I find it so special for a girl of your age to be able to this. It is incredible! I also want to have a daughter like you!”
Chantal: “Who taught you to sing like this? Do you have a singing teacher?”
Amira: “No, I haven’t had any singing lessons.”
Chantal: “You learnt it by yourself? You listen to the music and just sing – and then you know it? What is your dream”
Amira: “I want to be a singer when I’m older; and if not, then I want to take part in the Olympic Games as an athlete.”
Chantal: “Oh, so just two small dreams!”
Dan: “I’m curious if you’ve ever performed on a stage like this before, in front of an audience this big.”
Amira: “Yes, but not in front of an audience this big.”
Dan: “You’re incredible!”
Gordon: “What we have in Holland’s Got Talent, like last year, is ‘The Golden Ticket’ [proceed straight to the Live Finals].”
Amira: “When I heard I had been given a Golden Ticket, I was so surprised. I even thought I would wake up the next morning and discover it hadn’t happened. But the next morning there it was, lying on my bedside table.”
Gordon’s mid-song remark to fellow judge Chantal that Amira was “an old soul” inspired Gerrit Willighagen (Amira’s father) to come up with this digital juxtaposition of Amira and Maria’s faces (below). How spooky is that?
O mio babbino caro, Oh Dear Daddy,
mi piace è bello, bello; I like him, He’s so handsome;
vo’andare in Porta Rossa I want to go to Porta Rossa,
a comperar l’anello! To buy the ring.
Sì, sì, ci voglio andare! Yes, I want to go!
e se l’amassi indarno, And if I were to love him in vain,
andrei sul Ponte Vecchio, I would go to the Vecchio Bridge,
ma per buttarmi in Arno! And throw myself in the Arno!
Mi struggo e mi tormento! I fret and I suffer torments!
O Dio, vorrei morir! Oh God, I wish I could die!
Babbo, pietà, pietà! Daddy, have pity!
Babbo, pietà, pietà! Daddy, have pity!
Amira’s mother reported that her daughter had barely had a chance to practice for the semi-finals because she’d been suffering for several weeks with a cold in her throat and chest, and been unable to rehearse with the talent programme’s vocal coach. She also ran a fever and had to take antibiotics. However, Amira delivered a charming rendition of ‘Ave Maria’ in the semi finals (see below), and progressed by public vote to the Final.
Gordon: “What can I say? You’re only nine years old and you can already do this. The whole country has been waiting to watch your performance tonight and just look at everything that has happened to you over the past few months – it’s unreal. And now you are standing here in the Netherlands, Hilversham, in Studio 24, just like an American superstar. I think the video footage of your performance tonight is going to go right across the world again because it’s so amazing and so beautiful for a nine-year-old girl to be singing ‘Ave Maria’. Amira, in these dark days leading up to Christmas, I think many people had tears in their eyes when they heard your ‘Ave Maria’.”
Chantal: “Oh, Amira; I was so nervous because I really wanted your performance to be just as good as your first audition, but it was even better. And now you’re standing there with your gorgeous white dress and your beautiful little shoes . . . and your roses. I don’t think you even realise that millions of people have just watched you perform and that it’s going to happen again. I agree with Gordon that you were fantastic. Very well done!”
Dan: “Well, like she said, we were talking before she went on and how nervous we were for you because that many millions of people watched the YouTube video and there’s that many millions more waiting for your next performance to see if you can live up to that and we all think how great that is but you have to remember how much pressure that puts on somebody who’s just nine years old. And for you to just brush that off and come up here and give that level of performance . . I mean, you’re a star. You are a star who belongs on stage. Wonderful!”
Amira performs her choir-accompanied ‘Nessun Dorma’, from Puccini’s opera‘Turandot’
Gordon: “It’s so unreal, Amira, because that must be one of the most difficult songs for any singer to even consider performing because it has so many challenges throughout and then to see you, as a nine-year old girl, coped with that. I think that you had millions of people behind you tonight but both Chantal and I sat here extremely anxiously, waiting for that really high note, and then what a spectacular finish! Tonight the Netherlands has become one world star richer. A fantastic job. Well done!”
Chantal: “Amira, I need to ask you one more time, just for certainty: Are you really nine years old? (Amira: “Yes”) I find what you’re doing here totally unbelievable! What was so lovely for me was when the choir started to sing, and you just stood there with your eyes closed, it was so moving; and then you see a young girl just standing there in silence and that was so lovely to see. I really hope that you will remain a young girl for a very long time! After all, you are still only nine, but please also enjoy the rewards of the talent that you have. Think of yourself too and thank you for enabling us to watch your performance today.”
Dan: “I really don’t know what to say. I leaned over and just said ‘This is so not normal’. Yeah, I mean I don’t know, it’s a gift that you have and I think we are looking forward to watching you grow with that gift and seeing how far it can go because you are just positively spectacular up there. That’s all I can say.”
Amira’s got no nerves and she’s funny too! She pulled this stunt (0:54) as they were announcing potential finalists.
As well as winning a trophy part of Amira’s prize is to travel to Las Vegas to perform on The Strip in 2014.
Roland Jean: “A nine year old child that is able to sing on this level is more than amazing, extraordinary to say the least. Opera is about soul, emotion and passion. Amira, you were able to project all of that in an electrifying way to the audience. The innocence within you, being such a young child, convinced me that you naturally possess these three attributes; this is unique . Together with your vocal capabilities, all the odds are on your side to reach far in the captivating world of Opera. Congratulations Amira. I was born and raised in a professional Opera environment and married for twenty years to an Opera singer.”
In the meantime Amira attends school, plays with her cats and her friends, determined to share the money she will earn with poor children in Africa (see below).
Following her stunning success in ‘Holland’s Got Talent’, barely three months ago, what did the angelic nine-year-old operatic songbird Amira do next? She funded and opened a Charity Project.
Amira’s family roots are in Potchefstroom, near Johannesburg in South Africa, where her grandmother, Elsa Brand, sadly passed away in November last year, just before before her granddaughter was crowned winner of ‘Holland’s Got Talent’ in December 2013. Amira had visited there in 2012 when she was only seven years old and had toured the disadvantaged black township of Ikageng, lamenting their lack of playground facilities.
Amira: “They had nothing to do and nowhere to play. Nelson Mandela said that children must be able to play when they are small. I was fortunate to be able to play a lot when I was small (!) Nelson Mandela also believed that children should play a lot because if they were not happy as children, they would not grow up into happy adults.”
She vowed to return one day and give the children a playground. Little did she know that two years later her promise would be realised.
A merchant bank asked the pint-sized singer to visit South Africa and perform as a special guest artist at its prestigious 2014 Starlight Classics concert at the magnificent Vergelegen Wine Estate near Cape Town. She donated 50 percent of her fee, R130,000, to equip a playground with slides, see-saws, roundabouts and a jungle gym. Amira opened the playground on 5th March 2014 and unveiled a plaque featuring an image from her ‘Ave Maria’ performance.
Amira’s first album, ‘Amira’. Magic! Released: 28th March 2014. Can’t wait.
01. Amira – O Mio Babbino Caro (Gianni Schicchi)
02. Amira – Nella Fantasia
03. Amira – Voi Che Sapete (Le Nozze Di Figaro)
04. Amira – Pie Jesu (Requiem)
05. Amira – Caro Mio Ben
06. Amira – Song To The Moon (Rusalka)
07. Amira – Ave Maria
08. Amira – Ombra Mai Fu (Serse)
09. Amira – In Trutina (Carmina Burana)
10. Amira – Nessun Dorma (Turandot)
Amira officially received her first cd from jury-member Gordon on Saturday 22 March 2014, during her Album Release Party at “Artis Zoo” in Amsterdam.
Frieda Willighagen (Amira’s mother): “We all love music and Amira has been exposed to it since she was a very small baby. In fact, she used to accompany my husband to church and lay sleeping in her baby seat whilst he played the organ.”
Gerrit Willighagen (Amira’s father): “A couple of years ago when she started to sing, then we discovered she had a very beautiful voice and that’s she’s very musically talented. We were going on vacation and driving in the car, listening to cds. We were mostly listening to classical music, and she heard it and liked it. She started to sing a little bit. That’s how it started.”
Anderson Cooper (AC360 – CNN): “Is this kind of thing just a natural talent or is it something through practise, through rehearsal, you actually can develop?”
Daniel Coyle (author of ‘The Talent Code’): “It looks natural, doesn’t it? It gives you chills. But, in fact, when you look closely, she illustrates a couple of very powerful things about how talent is grown. The first is she grew up with this windshield. She was immersed in music – father a musician, brother, mother, and the second thing is she practised. That method of practise by training yourself on YouTube is actually perfectly aligned with the way the brain acquires skills by reaching towards something and by loving it so much that you keep reaching over and over again and you grow a very fast, fluent brain that way.
The difference is really in the quality of the practise. When you picture this little girl staring at an image of something she loves, you can see that musical identity in her, that love that’s driving her. And when she reaches for that over and over again, it changes your brain. There are brain scans that show the way the brains can change in response to extensive practise. They get faster, they get more accurate. You get better at whatever you’re doing.”
Geffrey Toobin (Columnist, New Yorker): “Sometimes it’s opportunity and sometimes . . . you know genes do matter . . . genes do change the way we have – especially when it comes to character, emotional discipline, control, toughness, things like that. In the end what we do know is that everybody has the same path forward, no matter who you are. If you practise intensively, if you find something that really connects to your identity, if you reach for it over and over again, you’re building yourself that talent.”
Anderson Cooper: “So your advice for parents out there is to expose their kids to the widest range of things possible and see what sticks?”
Daniel Coyle: “I’d say a couple of things. You know one is to not be so much like a tiger parent, be like a Johnny Appleseed parent – throw some stuff out there and see what your kid stares at. To stare is to think. It’s the most important signal our kids give us and the other thing is to give them a bit of space to discover what it is that connects to them. You can make it more likely by filling the windshield.
Think about the environment that little girl who sang grew up in, every day watching her father, a professional organist play, watching her mother play, watching her brother who’s quite good at the violin, play. Who we stare at decides who we become. So if we fill our windshield with those people, that ignites. Our motivational system works by staring at someone we want to become.”
Now I’m sure a number of you might be concerned, given the notorious train-wrecks of recent years, for the care and protection given Amira in her formative years when so much public attention has been focussed on her. Firstly, I think we can have great confidence in her parents.
Frieda Willighagen: “I think what makes it easier for us is that there are several laws in the Netherlands to protect children. At her age, Amira may only make twelve appearances a year and that includes interviews, even though they may only be a few minutes long, and it includes all performances, of course. So Amira is well-protected against being overworked. There is no home schooling in the Netherlands and she is obliged to attend school regularly. So, if you take all that into account, that’s a fairly full schedule for a child of her age. And if there is any time left over, she can choose to play or she can choose to sing. It’s up to her.
Amira has received invitations from countries around the world, so if people are wise and if they really want to see Amira perform in their countries they will invite her to perform during the Dutch school holidays because we have decided that it is best for her so that she can live a reasonably normal life and do all the things that children of her age like to do.”
It’s so trite to suggest that somehow Amira is ‘channelling’ the incarnation of a dead opera singer, harder to accept that nurturing, inspiration and dedicated practise are the keys to success, both personal and professional. More than that, this charming angel’s compassion in action is itself an inspiration to others.
An amateur opera singer myself, I recognize the quality of her voice and the potential for her to become one of the truly greats. I’ve seen the usual internet tosh from sycophants who know little or nothing of the genre, referring to her initial audition as a ‘near flawless performance’ when there were breathing issues, line transpositions, mispronunciations aplenty (mind you, Callas herself was often accused of mangling her Italian!). If Amira were, say, in her early twenties, would we have been so ‘wowed’? Given Amira’s tender age, we all enjoy the delightful frisson of ‘the dog that talks’. We’re captivated not by what the dog says but that it can speak at all!
Especially because of these considerations I count myself one of Amira’s greatest admirers. I’m charmed, I’m captivated. I’d rather listen to Amira’s voice now than I would any other female opera singer, including Callas. Her directness, her confidence, her comic nerve and timing, her purity of tone, her compassionate heart and generosity have won her a fan for life. I will follow your development with great interest, Amira. Bless you Dearheart! A sincere admirer, Swami Tantramurti Saraswati.
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Credits: video clip extracts: © RTL Netherlands and Fremantle International, translation(s): ‘Talented Young Musicians’ (YouTube).