When a 13-year-old operatic soprano stormed America’s Got Talent finals, and ignited a huge debate

1 July 2021, 17:18 | Updated: 2 July 2021, 11:36

Laura Bretan stuns in superstar audition for America’s Got Talent in 2016

By Kyle Macdonald

Watch the moment Laura Bretan stunned on Got Talent with dramatic Puccini, and a voice and style of singing that got the opera world talking.

This is the incredible moment a young singer, barely into her teens, wowed judges to receive the coveted ‘Golden Buzzer’ during her America’s Got Talent audition.

But the 13 year old’s performance of a dramatic Puccini aria also prompted a big debate about voices, repertoire, and the talent show incentives for promising young musicians.

Read more: When the world first heard unforgettable operatic duo Jonathan and Charlotte

Back in July 2016, Laura Bretan was already the winner of Romania’s Got Talent. The singer was born in Chicago to Romanian parents, and after her triumph in Europe, the biggest stage awaited in America.

In her audition, she sang Puccini’s ‘Nessun dorma’ from the opera Turandot, arranged for soprano voice. On stage, the modest, slight youngster produced a sound and wide vibrato more associated with older singers. On the night she was a hit, getting a press of that golden buzzer and generally bringing the house down.

With the help of audience votes and awards from judges, she progressed all the way to the finals of that season, finishing in sixth place overall. In the finals she returned to Puccini and another famous aria, ‘O mio babbino caro’.

Laura Bretan sings with II Volo on America's Got Talent
Laura Bretan sings with II Volo on America's Got Talent. Picture: Getty

However, at the time, many experienced singers and vocal coaches were concerned that someone so young was to be presenting repertoire so demanding on the voice. ‘Nessun dorma’ is written for a spinto tenor voice, which has the brightness and range of a lyric tenor, but also demands a significant vocal weight, enabling the voice to be ‘pushed’ to dramatic climax we know so well.

Often voices of talented younger singers are encouraged and developed through lighter virtuosic repertoire like Mozart, Schubert and sacred church music. In 2016 as millions watched Bretan scale the heights of fame with full-voiced dramatic opera, a debate raged.

Read more: 9-year-old sings unbelievable Nessun dorma to win Holland’s Got Talent

Singers and vocal coaches respond to the Laura Bretan phenomenon

In 2016, opera singer Heidi Moss wrote an open letter to the young singer on Facebook. She said: “There are things I heard in your sound that concern me. True classical training takes years of hard work, and forcing a sound that isn’t truly your own is dangerous.”

“Over time, the irritation of singing that way can cause swelling or even worse, nodes or popped vessels.”

Laura Bretan sings on America's Got Talent in 2016
Laura Bretan sings on America's Got Talent in 2016. Picture: America's Got Talent

Claudia Friedlander, a voice teacher from New York, wrote an article on her blog and published in Classical Singer Magazine.

In it, she praised Bretan’s “steadfast courage and commitment,” going on to say: “A young singer’s instrument is not yet even a fair facsimile of the voice they will late access as an adult. Thus there can be no true operatic prodigies.

“The young voice simply has not physiologically matured to the point that it is capable of projecting a healthy, balanced sound over an orchestra.”

“This is why Bretan’s performance raises such deep concerns for experienced opera singers and voice teachers. She possesses both a promising voice and strong musical instincts, but most of the sounds she is producing are the result of effortful, unsustainable manipulations of a body that is not yet mature enough.”

Vocal Health For Opera Singers | Discover Voices | Classic FM

At the time, Classic FM presenter and star soprano Catherine Bott also shared her thoughts. Bott said legendary Italian soprano Mirella Freni would be a good model for Bretan. Bott explained how Freni had won competitions at age 11, and had the world at her feet, but she was advised to dramatically limit her singing and learning until she was 16, allowing time for her voice to grow and settle. Freni would then go on to be one of the great operatic sopranos, frequently sharing the stage with Luciano Pavarotti.

Listen again: Catherine Bott's Sunday afternoon show on Classic FM

What is Laura Bretan doing today?

Since her Got Talent success, Laura has continued singing with more TV appearances and in Romania for the lead-up to the Eurovision Song Contest 2019.

Laura Bretan - Dear Father | Eurovision România 2019

Laura is now 19, and it’s amazing to think of just how young she was when she first stunned the world. We wish her all the very best for all her future musical endeavours.