She's an Internet sensation, with nearly 70 million YouTube views of her TV debut. Susan Boyle, a frumpy, unemployed, self-confessedly virginal 47-year-old Scots singer, has been acclaimed as a singing wonder since her April 11 audition for the U.K. show “Britain's Got Talent.”
Boyle has a compelling story. Unmarried, living in a small village with her cat Pebbles, volunteering at her church and caring for her sick mother, she still dreamed a dream: singing before a large audience. She did, and the world was wowed.
But come on. Does she really have such a great voice, or is just the improbability of that sound coming from that person that's so captivating the public?
I asked a number of professional singers, critics, vocal coaches and singing teachers for their thoughts. The consensus: She really does have an exceptional voice.
“Her pitch was right on, her quality was clear and she had volume when she belted,” said Rachel York, a Los Angeles singer and actress who performed Boyle's audition piece — “I Dreamed a Dream,” from “Les Misérables” — when playing Fantine on Broadway in 1992.
Referring to another YouTube clip by Boyle, York added, “I was actually amazed listening to ‘Cry Me a River’ — she has a really nice sultry sound.”
Allen Henderson, director of the 6,700-member National Association of Teachers of Singing, ticked off some of the qualities used to judge a singing voice. They include vibrato vs. straight, in tune vs. out of tune, strong vs. weak, breathy vs. clear, warm vs. cool, free vs. forced, and stylistically correct for the genre vs. incorrect.
Based on those criteria, he termed Boyle's voice “good.”
London vocal coach Tona de Brett, who said she has worked with singers including Dido, Linda McCartney and Johnny Rotten, was more enthusiastic.
“Her breathing sounds good, her tuning is perfect, and she puts in real emotion without being overdone, which is a tremendously good thing, because so often in the pop business, the emotions are superimposed,” de Brett said. “I must say, she's got a knockout gift, a real natural gift.”
Gene Stout, editor of a blog about popular music and until March the pop critic for the now-shuttered Seattle Post-Intelligencer, called Boyle's voice “stunning — assuming her performance wasn't technically enhanced, which I think it wasn't.”
New York-based vocal teacher and therapist Joan Lader, who has worked with Madonna and Patti LuPone (LuPone played Fantine on Broadway in 1987), described Boyle's voice as “very free, unaffected and pure, with lots of clarity and range. A piece like ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ climbs, and she hit the mark. People have very specific expectations when they hear that song. She met them.”
Boyle hasn't spoken much about what vocal training she's received, and her publicist didn't respond to inquiries on that topic. But her apparent lack of formal training is appealing to Eric Vetro, a Los Angeles vocal coach who said he's worked with Meatloaf, Bette Midler and The Goo Goo Dolls.
“What surprised me most was her naturalness. It wasn't that overly manufactured Broadway sound,” Vetro said. “It was a Broadway sound but with a natural feeling to it and a beautiful tone.”
OK, so Boyle has a good voice. Maybe even a great voice.
But then there's her age and appearance. She's a long way from being a young, toned, skimpily clad pop star. Hell, even opera divas are shedding their Viking helmets and looking foxy these days.
Boyle hasn't disclosed any plans for her singing future, and through her publicist she declined to be interviewed. If she does pursue a record deal or a role in a musical, what are her odds of success?
They're mixed, said several people. Everyone deplored the value typically placed on appearance. At the same time, they acknowledged it's a reality — though not insurmountable.
“There's no shortage of first-class voices out there, but Boyle has a unique story: she's unattractive,” said R.M. Campbell, a Seattle-based music critic for Northwest classical-music site The Gathering Note.
“She's a bit like Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was overweight and wore glasses — everything a woman entertainer shouldn't be,” Campbell said. “It's really, really hard to make a career if a woman isn't attractive. But Fitzgerald was a great singer and a great musician, and she rose above her physical circumstances. Her career lasted 60 years.”
Several coaches said Boyle's very ordinariness could propel her to further success.
“She's an everywoman as opposed to an untouchable fantasy goddess, so maybe that's why people react to her,” said Vetro, the L.A. vocal coach. “They say, ‘She's one of us, but look how talented she is. We want to support her’.”
“I can see her having one album that is successful, that people who like her voice would buy,” he said. “I don't see her as an act that would tour. And I think she should audition for Broadway or West End shows, where she could really shine.”
He foresees perhaps not lead roles for her but smaller, important singing roles, like that of Mother Abbess singing “Climb Every Mountain“ in “The Sound of Music,” or Nettie Fowler singing “June is Busting Out All Over” in “Carousel.”
“It might be a character role that needs a strong voice, maybe for one big song,” Vetro said.
Boyle is slated to sing again on “Britain's Got Talent” during the show's semifinal round, running several days during the last week in May. If she wins, Boyle will receive 100,000 pounds (roughly $145,800) and will perform for Prince Charles at the Royal Variety Show.
Whatever Boyle's future, London voice coach de Brett says she wishes her wisdom above all, and the courage to be true to herself.
“I hope she isn't swayed too much by publicity or money. I hope she's wise and has good advisers,” de Brett said. “If she's taken up by the right sort of people, I think she'll do beautifully.”