America’s Got Talent Season 11 is NBC’s top-rated summer series with judges Simon Cowell, Mel B, Heidi Klum, and Howie Mandell. The semifinals air this Tuesday and Wednesday at 7pm on NBC Chicago affiliate WMAQ-TV5. America is voting on Live acts and only one act is walking out of The Dolby Theater Hollywood, CA with $1million.
Charming, sweet, humble, special, amazing, brilliant, mesmerizing: if there was one word that sums up these qualities, it would be the descriptive word I choose for Chicago-native Laura Bretan. She is the one to watch in this week’s semifinals. Mel B’s Golden Buzzer sent her straight through to this stage. The performance that won her this right was captivating. During the introduction, she shyly explains she’s 13 (now 14) with a quiet/nervous giggle, yet when asked if she’s a singer by Howie Mandell she confidently states “Yes” with a very definitive nod. She sounds nervous and openly expresses how nervous she is with an anxious laugh. Then after instructions from Howie “Alls you got to do is sing the song you picked out, ok?” Laura responds with a “Thank you”, does a quick scan of the crowd and judges, and gives her mom a thumbs up.
When the prelude begins, her eyes float up, and she seems instantly transported to somewhere far away; dissipating any nerves. Then she opens her mouth and the most hauntingly confident tenor aria is beautifully projected towards the crowd, striking them like a wave, leaving them all in disbelief. The amount of emotion in her face is unmistakable; she feels the song, it's a deep one to interpret, but she’s the one telling the story.
Laura is not just a singer, she’s a performer, and yet it's way more than that. Her voice is so much bigger, more mature, soulful, bolder than her 13-year-old body. Her expression is very real. The only way I can justify the type of emotion she expresses must come from experiences in life, only she’s so young, yet seems to know exactly where these feelings stem from. She hits every note with such strength and precision, sending shivers down the spine.
It's like she’s a machine; an instrument! One that has encapsulated the world, taken a long evaluation of it, then solved world peace. Now she’s here to disseminate her revelation. When she hits the highest note at climax, she herself searches above almost as if she is in disbelief she can do such incredible things. But she goes with it, and continues to sing her solution for the audience on how she’s solved world peace. Unbelievable.
After she finishes, the crowd and all four judges give a standing ovation. Everyone wants to know, and Nick Cannon looks to her mother to find out “where did that voice come from?” We all want to know. Laura has tears forming in her eyes and sits with the reaction of others. She was “relieved” after the performance, her voice going back to the giddy-nervous-shy-humble 13-year-old…and she laughs with the crowd who laugh with her.
Heidi “You were born with such a gift, it is unbelievable”. Simon remained in disbelief. Mel B hit the Golden Buzzer and sent her on her way with instructions to “Go enjoy yourself”. Laura sang with a lace heart on her shirt, Mel B had a design that closely resembled a lace heart on the front of her dress.
-- The Interview --
At 88.7 WLUW-FM’s Loyola University studio downtown Chicago, after an appearance on "Live From The Heartland" radio show, I was able to catch up with now 14-year-old Laura Bretan and ask her a few questions about the AGT performance that sent her directly to the semifinals. I needed to know this girl and find out where exactly that unbelievable sound comes from. Vocal coach Nicoleta Roman, Romanian also with the Chicago Symphony Chorus, joined her.
Elizabeth Lauer: Why Puccini?
Laura Bretan: I chose Puccini because I know, it's not the easiest of arias, but they’re magnificent and they’re beautiful.
Liz: So what were you feeling when you stepped out on that stage, I know you were nervous because I saw the audition…
Laura: Oh my Goodness, I didn’t know what to do, I almost started crying. Backstage while I was waiting I was so nervous I had no idea what to do
Liz: But you went out and turned that nervous energy into something magnificent. There are not very many people who can do that and you definitely pulled it together, I mean more than pulled it together, you blew everybody out of the water, I mean you got a standing ovation!
Laura: It was definitely really hard to do that, but I was really excited to be there even though there was all this…um..I was so nervous.
Nicoleta Roman (vocal coach): We always pray before any performance, so I think that is what really helped as well. She has such a strong belief and her Christianity….
Laura: [chiming in] The burden was off of my shoulders [followed by a relief-releasing laugh]
Nicoleta: She kind of relies on God a lot. So you cannot be a loser if you have God in your heart, I think. And I know she totally feels that way. That's how she was brought up ever since, you know, she was a little girl. She sang in church since she was 4, with her mother being her mentor, her Christian songs.
Liz: So that starts to sum up those life experiences where one gets the emotion from
(I needed to know..there had to be some explanation as to where she got that voice. But I believe she was born with it, and her family upbringing cultivated it. She’s a natural….an unexplainable, unbelievable baby who was born with it.)
Liz: Who is your idol that inspires you?
Laura: I really love Celine Dion and Adele, I mean I know they’re not like opera singers but they’re just a big inspiration and they’re both amazing.
Liz: When did you start dreaming about all this, where did these dream come from, where are you going with all of this, your dreams….Where did it come from, where did it all start?
Laura: Well since I was little I loved to sing. I would learn songs on the spot, um, and my mom saw that I really enjoyed it so she taught me songs and she gave me songs to learn and I just sang in church one night for Christmas and it was just from then on, it went on.
Liz: and you dreamed about…
Laura: YES!!! And at the age of 7, I know it's not opera, but I was listening to Sleeping Beauty and watching the movie at the same time and it was just amazing, it kind of like sparked something and it just inspired me and it was different from all the other music and I thought that it was just beautiful. I was inspired, I wanted to sing like her!
-- Romania’s Got Talent --
Laura, who fluently speaks Romanian, won Romania’s Got Talent this year, singing Vissi d’arte, Puccini’s opera Tosca, all in Italian. There is a personal story here, she did this performance for her grandfather who had recently passed away; she was there to attend his funeral. Her grandfather was her biggest fan and convinced her to compete in Romania’s Got Talent. In this contest, she also received a Super Golden Buzzer sending her directly to the finals. I asked a little about how it felt to win this:
Nicoleta: She auditioned in his honor. The funeral was on Friday and she sang on Thursday for the audition. Literally this happened at the same time.
Laura: I think it was like perfect, I mean it wasn’t an exciting thing for me because of this event, because I knew I had to do a good job for him and I didn’t sing at the funeral because I mean that’d just be really hard for me, so I decided to dedicate that to my grandfather.
Nicoleta: What she means is, she couldn’t really enjoy the moment and all those applauses and all the people cheering her and everything because her soul was so broken. Her heart was in pieces because she was very close to her grandfather. He was her role model; he was always her biggest fan and always cheering for her and supporting her and telling her you know you need to study and persevere and follow your dreams. And by the time, you know, she kind of made it, he passed away, so it was a bitter sweet experience.
Liz: I can see where the emotion she expresses in her songs could come from
Nicoleta: It’s her most happiest year, it’s like the Laura Bretan year, you know, but at the same time her heart is the saddest.
Laura: I’m still mourning for my grandfather, I mean it's still really hard to go through all of this without him.
Liz: I’m sorry
Laura: It's OK, I know he’s watching from somewhere so…
When asked about Romania’s Got Talent compared to AGT:
Laura: It's a different country. I mean the audience is so much smaller and so is the stage.
Nicoleta: There’s no comparison, you know like 200 people versus 3,000, and the prize, you know, she never did it for the money.
Liz: Gosh, I never knew there were other countries who held this competition.
Laura: Yeah, I think there are like 96 different shows.
Nicoleta: And can you believe Simon is the creator
Liz: and what he said… (referring to his comment “I have never heard anything like that in all the years I’ve been doing this show”).
Laura: I did not expect that, that was like the most amazing thing and that just marked me in such a positive way. I just did not expect that, especially from Simon. Especially from Simon!
Nicoleta: She was frightened of him, that's why she was so nervous, because of him.
Liz: It’s like what you commented earlier, the audience, everything just floats away during your performance.
Laura: Yeah it's like, your living the dream and you should enjoy it.
Nicoleta: You can’t allow your nerves to ruin that moment.
Nicoleta: It's like you better snap out of it.
Laura: Like everything seemed to just disappear and I was like in a fantasy.
-- Chicago --
Liz: So Chicago is the pulse of the nation, what do you love about Chicago?
Laura: Um, everything pretty much, I love, well not always the weather, but I just love that I grew up here and all my family is here and yeah!
Liz: What do you do for fun? What does a 14-year-old Laura Bretan do?
Laura: Um, I like to play in the park with my cousins and my friends. Um, I like to play basketball, I like to draw, I like to write poems, play piano.
Liz: You are a young girl of the arts, so awesome.
-- Finalé --
Right now, I think the world is in disbelief about this girl. Once we start believing this 14-year-olds' unbelievable performances are real, is when she penetrates our souls and transforms us into believers. There is a power she beholds which seems to come from above; it seems hardly explainable otherwise.
Liz: When did you start taking vocal lessons?
Laura: I didn’t officially start until last year, I met Nicole so, I mean I had voice lessons but it ..
Liz: I took a vocal lesson and learned about how to create sound, kind of like an anatomy and physiology lesson. It was so amazing to me how sound is actually created and how to change the pitch and intensity. You’ve been gifted with a musical instrument.
Laura: Yeah I am really excited to be able to be in this kind of competition and I think it is amazing how sound is produced. I mean just the voice in general, how the sound can be produced. Its just amazing how you can use your own instrument to sing. I think it's incredible that something so normal can inspire the world.
Liz: I adore you and I wish the best for you
Laura: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Watch America’s Got Talent semifinals starting Tuesday on NBC Chicago affiliate WMAQ-TV5 at 7pm Central.
Download the official America’s Got Talent App here and cast your vote during the live shows.
Laura Bretan (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Lauer)