Youth Will Be Served

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Forget Cecilia Bartoli. The hottest female name in classical music right this second is a perky little Welsh soprano named Charlotte Church. Her first CD, Voice of an Angel (Sony Classical), went double platinum in Britain and rose to No. 4 on the U.K. pop charts. In recent weeks she's been seen in the U.S. on The Rosie O'Donnell Show and Late Show with David Letterman. Her summer schedule includes pledge-drive appearances on public-TV stations across the country and a June 14 benefit performance at Ford's Theatre in Washington that President Clinton was expected to attend (she has already sung for the Pope). Her dream, she says, is to sing Madama Butterfly at La Scala, and she's just about the right age for it. Puccini's doomed heroine was 15 years old; Church is 13.

Her appeal is easy enough to understand. Audiences love child prodigies, and record-company executives love them even more--especially when they act like ordinary kids, not prematurely serious artist-nerds. That's Church all over: a cheerful talk-show guest, she admits to being a fan of Puff Daddy's and Celine Dion's. Even better, she has the kind of I'm-no-snob demeanor that goes over spectacularly well in class-obsessed Britain, where artists who have (or can simulate) the common touch can count on being boosted by the down-market tabloids. That too is Church all over--her mother manages a public housing project in Cardiff--and it helps explain why the TV "chat shows" took up the young singer and gave her a start, thereby bringing her to the attention of Sony execs.

Still, her relentlessly bubbly persona may not have the same effect on American record buyers. Wholesome is hot these days--look at Ricky Martin or Britney Spears--but Voice of an Angel may prove a harder sell, consisting as it does of wishy-washy arrangements of hymns and Celtic folk songs, with Andrew Lloyd Webber's easy-listening setting of Pie Jesu thrown in for bad measure. Sony Classical, which is devoting a steadily increasing share of its energies to such lowbrow crossover projects as Michael Bolton's My Secret Passion: The Arias and the Titanic sound track, is promoting the CD aggressively (Church is sharing space with Mariah Carey on some New York City record-store posters). To date, though, Voice of an Angel has yet to rise above No. 28 on the U.S. pop charts.

As for her singing, it's good enough, though no better than that. She sounds like a reasonably talented boy soprano who accidentally swallowed half a tab of human growth hormone. Alas, even the most mature-sounding teenage voices are too physically fragile to stand up to ruthless exploitation, and Church's is already afflicted with a wobbly vibrato that has TOO MUCH, TOO SOON stamped all over it. If she continues to pump it out night after night, the only place she'll be singing Cio-Cio-San is in the shower.