Hush, sweet Charlotte

Music - Richard Cook wonders whether the child prodigy can handle all the operatic lollipops

Child stars soon shoot out of sight. Like childhood itself, they have no choice but to take their leave of us. That hasn't stopped many of them hanging on for a kind of accelerated dotage: washed up at 20, talk-show circuit at 30, pension at 35. Michael Jackson, the most enduring child of them all, who still shows few signs of growing up, has just turned 43. Whatever his new record (finally scheduled for the end of October) is like, it will still be difficult to take him seriously as a purveyor of adult entertainment. Instead, that is increasingly falling to real children. While the pop market-place is tooled for ever younger and more precocious consumers, we grown-ups crave the sweetness of untainted youth. How else to explain the enormous success of Charlotte Church?

It helps that, so far, she is not a pop singer. There are no Britney v Charlotte wars. Her contemporaries are not interested in her records - after all, teenagers don't want to listen to either Rossini arias or "Men of Harlech". Church is a refuge for parents who are exhausted with the glittering tartiness of Britney Spears, whose entire career seems like one slow, excruciatingly protracted striptease. Church would no more think of wearing a peekaboo top than she would confess to inhaling on a menthol cigarette. This is, after all, someone who has sung for the Pope.

Besides, she's still only 15. Although we've already had three years of Church's recording career, her appeal remains rooted in her position as a child wonder. Listening to Charlotte Church (Sony Classics), her second record, the impact is not of her artistry, but from the realisation that this then-13-year-old could sing such music at all. She sounds squarely in a tradition of chesty British sopranos, the matronly timbre already budding beneath her cardigans. It is hard to imagine Charlotte Church as Carmen, or Violetta. Tragedy will not be the vehicle for her grown-up voice, just as we could never have pictured Ernest Lough as Don Giovanni. Yet the programming of both this record and the forthcoming Enchantment insists that we deal with Church as a mature player, able to handle whatever operatic lollipops her recording managers offer her.

Perhaps they are confident that most of her audience won't know any better if she is not quite up to some of the material. The records are ingeniously produced. The sound mix carefully places Church in a slightly recessed position, with a soft-focusing applied to exposed notes, rather like using Vaseline on a camera lens. Even so, that still doesn't protect her from the difficulties of something like the "Jewel Song" from Gounod's Faust, a famous set piece for generations of sopranos. Church sings it, but there is nothing deeper than that in what she does. Like all gifted children asked to perform in a sophisticated art form, she follows the procedure without touching on its necessary depths. Instrumental prodigies can get away with it, but singers have a much tougher task. On George Gershwin's "Summertime", Church is even more remote from feeling the words, although that does place her in a distinguished line of classically trained singers who have no idea what to do with a jazz inflection.

None of this really dents Church's wholesome appeal. It would be both disturbing and oddly disappointing to find her at one with the intricacies of "Voi che sapete" from The Marriage of Figaro. If she were able to convey "this tender torment", then even her girlish simplicities, which do illuminate some of her more appropriate material, would be no more than artifice. Enchantment is another mix of light classics and folkie religion, but the inclusion of the likes of "Somewhere" and "Papa Can You Hear Me?" from Barbra Streisand's Yentl sees Church being edged towards someone's idea of pop. In that regard, it is entirely in keeping with the melancholy choice the major classical labels have made for themselves in recent years. Disheartened by the downfall of their catalogue sales, with the glory days of the Three Tenors and Kennedy's Four Seasons behind them, all the majors are offloading serious repertoire and buying into "crossover" phenomena with a tragic desperation. With sales of eight million behind her, Church is the kind of artist they all badly want.

Like Sheena Easton's "Modern Girl", who chose to stay in and watch TV one night instead of being at her boyfriend's beck and call, Church's unpowdered niceness is already nostalgic, emblematic of a time when there were no drugs in the playground and under-age pregnancies seemed like genuine aberrations. When she sings "Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer", Church is reminding us of long-ago school assemblies and dinners. We never liked them then, but that doesn't stop us going misty-eyed now.

Enchantment is released by Sony Classics in October

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, What would you do?