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'America's Got Talent': It's a Season for Prodigies
September 10, 2019  | By Alex Strachan

America’s Got Talent 
has been a balm for troubled times ever since it first bowed all those years ago, but this summer, in particular, has thrown a spotlight on just how refreshing hope and optimism really are.

Yes, it’s manipulative. Yes, what you don’t see on the screen often counts for more than what you do. And, yes, despite the sky-high TV ratings and the surge of support on social media, a solid, summer-long audition on TV doesn’t always translate into a successful career afterward.

Talent is one thing, while genius is quite another. And this season, AGT’s 14th, there are two contenders who aren’t so much artists as prodigies. It’s inevitable they will meet in the Sept. 17 finals, and likely that one of them will be named the winner on Sept. 18. One of them, blind, autistic musician Kodi Lee (left), 22, has already qualified; the other, 10-year-old opera sensation Emanne Beasha (top), will likely be confirmed during Wednesday’s results show. And while one can never tell where a popular vote is concerned — on TV or off — Lee and Beasha go into AGT’s final act as co-frontrunners.

Both are musical prodigies. Both are where they are because of supportive parents. Both grew up with music from an early age. Lee, despite struggling with speech, has an automatic audio recall; it’s second nature to him. From an early age, he could recall pitch, tone, music, and lyrics from just one listen. His musical interests vary from pop, rock, and R&B to Chopin, Bach, and Mozart, but what’s more telling — and this is the part that jumps out on TV — is the way he undergoes a sudden transformation the moments he sits at the piano, mic in front of him. He auditioned with Leon Russell’s A Song for You, and a shy, halting, nervous 22-year-old morphed into someone entirely different: a professional stage performer blessed with genuine heart and soul, not an imitation but seemingly the real thing. That is rare anywhere — even experienced touring professionals get jaded after a while — but it’s virtually unknown on TV talent shows.

Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and Calum Scott’s You Are the Reason round out Kodi's Talent performances so far, and there’s no reason to think he’ll falter heading into the final phase. He is the first sightless contestant to reach the finals on AGT, and the first known contestant with autism to go that far.

Emanne Beasha, on the other hand, has traveled an entirely different journey — literally. This is the part that, for whatever reason, AGT has chosen not to emphasize: She was born in Amman, Jordan and is Jordanian by birth. There’s an interesting video on YouTube, badly recorded, of a nine-year-old Beasha performing before an audience of Jordan’s King Hussein and the royal court; she won the Arabian version of Talent (there are Talent shows all over the world, all of them following the same rigid format). Beasha’s mother was a talented opera singer in her own right, and the 10-year-old Beasha grew up in a household where opera was a constant, always on the radio or the record/CD player.

Here’s where the prodigy part comes in. With child singers, it’s almost always impossible to tell how or even if they’ll mature as performers as they grow older and their voice — and vocal range — changes. That doesn’t matter on a TV talent competition that airs over the summer and is quickly forgotten, but it means everything once the show ends and that child act is forced to face the real world.

Comparisons between Beasha and Jackie Evancho (right), who was also 10 when she finished runner-up to balladeer Michael Grimm in 2010, are inevitable, if possibly misleading. Evancho has matured into a skilled and graceful, if not exactly enthralling, crossover artist at 18; her tellingly titled album Songs from the Silver Screen feature professional, polished renditions of The Music of the NightWhat a Wonderful WorldMy Heart Will Go On (with violinist Joshua Bell) and The Summer Knows (with trumpet solo artist and composer Chris Botti). Evancho performed a duet with Barbra Streisand on Somewhere on her signature album Dream With Me in 2011, which is pretty high rent. She performed the national anthem at the currently-sitting U.S. president’s inauguration in 2017 and seems to be positioning herself, at age 18, as a latter-day Sarah Brightman — no longer a doyenne of the classical world but a crossover artist who can move from Carnegie Hall to Broadway with equal ease. (This is remarkable if you think about it because, until recently, America’s Got Talent was just another silly summer TV talent competition; it was never meant to be taken really seriously.)

Beasha is not Evancho, despite their similarity in age and musical background when they debuted on AGT. Beasha, at age 10, is already showing astounding growth vocally. Just watch her videos on YouTube as a nine-year-old, and compare that voice with who she is now on Talent, and the difference is night and day. If her voice, pitch, range, and vocal poise have matured that much in just one year, it’s frightening to think where she might go from here. One thing does seem clear, though: Classical opera is her métier. To my ears, her vocal pitch, range, and musical acuity are far advanced from where Evancho was at that age. It’s endearing, too, that like Lee, Beasha’s offscreen personality is skittish, nervous and very, very young.

We’re living in strange times, though, in a strange world. And, make no mistake, America’s Got Talent is a world show, not just an American show. An inner-city youth choir from South Africa, Ndlovu Youth Choir, have qualified for the finals alongside Lee; YouTube favorite and strong contender for the popular vote, singer-songwriter Benicio "Beni" Bryant (right), 14, is promoted as being from Maple Valley, a suburb of Seattle, WA, but his heritage is Argentinian. There are a lot of world connections on AGT, but the producers don’t always go out of their way to make that clear.

On a YouTube video of one of Beasha’s early AGT performances, there are thousands of "thumbs up," but also more than 300 downward thumbs. Who could possibly listen to that voice and vote thumbs down, I wondered, and then left a comment.

Another person replied almost immediately, and while it’s impossible to confirm, his reply rings true: The negative votes came from Jordan, he said, because Beasha — and the show — have seemingly airbrushed the entire country out of her backstory. She is identified on-air as being from North Point, FL. And while there’s nothing wrong with that on the face of it, it’s hard to shake the nagging feeling that, because Talent comes down to a popular vote in the end, somebody somewhere may have worried that "cute, talented 10-year-old from Amman, Jordan" might not win as many votes as "cute, talented 10-year-old from Florida."

Even on America’s Got Talent, it seems, it’s impossible to escape politics.

As for who will win in the end, the talent in this season’s finale — regardless of Wednesday’s semi-final results — speaks for itself. This has been a remarkable season, and Lee, Beasha, Bryant, and, yes, Ndlovu Youth Choir, are all worthy of the title.

Winning is not everything, in any event. In a charming, disarming recent interview, Evancho recalled the night she lost AGT. She was convinced she was going to win, she said. There was no doubt about it in her mind. And the moment she lost, she thought to herself: That’s it, her life is over, it’s back to school and the small family town, and time to start all over again.

Her dad’s phone rang the following morning, she said, and it hasn’t stopped ringing since. It has been go, go, go, go, non-stop, ever since. Finishing runner-up didn’t work out so badly. AGT thrust her into the spotlight but now, looking back, the TV show was just that — a TV show, a fading blur in the memory. The important part was what came later.

Forced to choose, I predict Lee will win this year. That said, I suspect Beasha is the one we’ll be talking about years from now. Appearing at Carnegie Hall, if not on Broadway.

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