A Voice Heard Around the World

Last week-end, Susan Boyle stepped friskily onto the stage of a show I’d never heard of (which indicts my militant lack of pop-cultural savvy not the show’s popularity), BRITAIN’S GOT TALENT.

Not particularly telegenic, looking decidedly frumpy, this unemployed woman, who lives alone in government housing with a cat called ‘Pebbles’ (how wonderfully Dickensian can this get?), and who said she had “never been kissed”, was treated to jeers and eye rolls from judges and audience alike. You couldn’t help but cringe on her behalf as what seemed like an impending train wreck continued to roll on.  In fact, she seemed oblivious to this, and hammed up her moment in the limelight, making her seem even more potentially ridiculous.

It wasn’t actually ridiculous at all, it was courageous, and endearing. This was her moment and she wasn’t going to be embarrassed out of it. She opted to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” from the extraordinary operetta Les Miserables which musicalized Victor Hugo’s immortal novel so unforgettably and which continues to play on the West End over 20 years after it made its appearance at London’s Barbican.

I was at Oxford when Les Mis opened, and recall Patti Lupone (remembered best in the US as Broadway’s Evita, and having recently wowed audiences in Gypsy), doing a heart-wrenching and soul-stirring rendition of this song. It is a song that captures the despair felt by anyone who has been abandoned by life. Yet it is sung against the backdrop of a play that is itself ultimately about protecting a divine flame within us, about the indestructibility of goodness in the face of evil and despair — it is about love and redemption above all.

What a perfect song for Ms. Boyle to have selected! Anyone who has read THE WASHINGTON POST, been online, or watched television over the last few days, knows what happened next. As she began to sing, she was transformed, the listeners were transformed, the frumpiness fell away, and suddenly there was a beguiling angel on stage with a voice of beauty, pathos and power. It is hard to watch this without cheering along with the almost immediately ovationary crowd and judges. Watch it even now and it is hard not to be misty-eyed. Her performance is an anthem to how we humans can be so much more than we seem. And while we can deride the cynicism she was initially met with and how readily it converted to adulation based on ‘performance’, there is something to be said about the ability of passion and commitment to transcend doubt.

Back in the tiny village of Blackburn, West Lothian Scotland, she has returned as a celebrity among the 5000 souls who inhabit the village. Camera crews are pouring in, she received a welcome ovation at Mass in her Church, and people are even going back in droves to hear the original cast recording of  “I Dreamed a Dream” and will hopefully rediscover Les Miserables as a result too.

It was a Renaissance moment.

Why do I say that? One of the seminal works of art of the Renaissance is Michelangelo’s David, which continues to inspire awe timelessly in Florence. If you look carefully at it, you’ll see that a large part of its impact comes from the juxtaposition of power and vulnerability. There are rippling, almost God-like muscles, and yet a young boy’s youthfulness, the exposure of humanness in his unprotected nakedness. It is neither the Medieval glorying of the Divine nor the modern narcissism of the ego. It is both fragility and possibility in one. That was the high water mark of Renaissance philosophy, a true watershed in human history. It is arguably the essence of what it means to be human.

And it is precisely in those human terms that Susan Boyle became such a wonderful hero this week. Bravo! And dare I say, not only to Ms. Boyle but to all who have found this inspiring: “Encore!”