If you have not seen this clip yet (although as of this writing YouTube reports three million viewings, so I suppose it's unlikely), watch it before reading my comments below.
Followups on NRO from some readers and the resident cranky old Englishman/immigration scold/opera buff John Derbyshire filled out the story a bit. I particularly liked this bit of analysis from a reader to Goldberg:
The video came up and there’s this dumpy guy with bad teeth. Then he started to sing. Now, I’m not an overly emotional person, but halfway through I realized I was crying. Haven’t done anything like that in many, many years, and I wondered, as I dried my eyes, how in the world his singing could have caused such a strong reaction in me....His expression before he begins to sing is that of a man resigned to disappointment. Even when he smiles, his eyes convey a profound sadness. He has been a nobody all his life. He, and perhaps only he, knows he has greatness inside of him, but he is obviously a humble man, massively insecure, afraid of rejection, unsure of himself outside the cocoon of anonymity. But you get the feeling he also knows that this may be the one chance he gets to escape the cocoon, and as he begins to sing, you can see him fighting down his fear. I think that is the wellspring of the emotion that pervades his performance. He is fighting against a life of obscurity.
By the song’s end, what was an average Joe has stepped up, beaten back his fear, and broken through. In those few seconds, he put the void behind him, and his life will probably be changed forever because he called up the courage at that moment to show what he was really made of. We saw greatness, long denied, finally being born.
Well, I agree with all that. This performance is an iconic illustration of the most beloved of all stories, the peasant who turns into a prince, but I also think there's a little more to it. It's not just that he is singing with emotion, but that this particular song expresses everything Jonah's correspondent saw.
I am by no means an opera nerd, so I may be a little out of my depth here, but I believe this is one of the few times I have heard a tenor sing an aria and really mean it. There are undeniable, significant flaws in Paul Potts's performance (which is, by the way, a shortened version of the aria, I assume to accomodate time restraints) but it is equally undeniable that he is, for the sixty seconds he is singing, wholly in character.
The aria Paul sings, Nessun Dorma, is from Turandot, the Persian fairy-tale opera Giacomo Puccini left unfinished when he died in 1926. Turandot, a cold-hearted princess, has already executed several potential suitors when a mysterious and anonymous man accepts the usual challenge: solve her riddles and he gains her hand; fail and she gains his head. The stranger solves Turandot's riddles, but gives her a second chance: if she can discover his name before dawn, she may behead him.
"Nessun dorma" means "No one shall sleep" -- it is Turandot's command, on pain of death, that all her subjects shall strive all night to discover the stranger's name. The stranger takes up this phrase, now on a major chord: yes, no one will sleep,
Even you, o Princess,
In your cold room,
Watch the stars,
That tremble with love
And with hope.
But my secret is hidden within me;
My name no one shall know,
On your mouth I will speak it
When the light shines
And my kiss will dissolve the silence
That makes you mine.
And finally, the triumphant climax:
Dilegua, o notte!
To be honest, the high B seems a hair beyond Paul's reach, but it doesn't matter. The slight crack is endearing, for he is declaring I shall conquer! And indeed he does. The audience, most of whom have never heard of Turandot and would have trouble distinguishing Puccini from Punchinello, are cheering him like Caruso at La Scala. The female judge is openly weeping, and even the snooty looking fellow, who raised his high-bred eyebrows in alarm when this lumpy nobody announced he was there "to sing opera" is won over.
The character who sings this song, Calaf, is, like Paul, an apparent nobody. His father is the former king of Tartary, deposed by Turandot's father. Calaf himself lives in anonymity, fearful of discovery, yet he retains the heart of a prince. Is that why Paul Potts chose this aria? I have no idea. It took serious cojones in one sense, because he is almost demanding to be compared to Luciano Pavarotti. Not only has Pavarotti made it his signature piece for thirty years, his recording of it was used by the BBC as the theme for the 1990 World Cup, and it became a quirky hit in Great Britain. On the other hand, perhaps he knew a comparison would be in his favor. Here is Pavarotti:
It is technically as close to perfect as man's voice can be. But it is somehow cold. No frozen heart, certainly not Turandot's, could be melted by such singing. Compare this, Paul Pott's performance in the final competition. He has spruced up, and sings the entire aria.
He won, by the way.