Of all the joyous moments on television this year, few were as memorable or as awe-inspiring as the audition of Northbrook’s own Laura Bretan on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” Her sweet, somewhat nervous disposition provided no indication of the genius she was about to unleash on the judges, who were as gobsmacked as the audience by her staggering operatic vocals. It’s not an exaggeration when I say that her voice is the most astonishing I’ve ever heard, in part because Bretan was only 13 when she auditioned, and turned 14 in April.
“Opera is something that I’ve been interested in ever since I was seven years old,” Bretan told me during a recent chat on the phone. “I watched the movie ‘Sleeping Beauty’ for the first time and that’s what got me into classical music. I loved how Aurora was singing, and I wanted to be just like her. I really love Disney films in general. They’re not only cartoons, they tell a story through the music and it’s so beautiful how everything is constructed. I just love faerie tales.”
Bretan’s 2016 certainly has all the earmarks of a faerie tale, which was propelled into hyper-drive after her “AGT” audition earned her the coveted Golden Buzzer, sending her directly into the live shows. Though she grew up loving opera, Bretan wasn’t aware of her own vocal potential until a sudden breakthrough occurred.
“Three years ago, I discovered my voice by accident,” said Bretan. “I was preparing for a Christmas concert at church, and the song that I sang was too high for me. So I tried it in a different way, and my mom thought it was interesting. That’s how it all started.”
Thus began a series of opera lessons that eventually led Bretan to Nicoleta Roman, a lyric artist at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who currently serves as her vocal coach. Bretan told me that their process of selecting songs is a relatively simple one, essentially boiling down to a process of elimination in which they zero in on the tune that best fits her range and personality. One of the most inspired song choices for Bretan on “AGT” turned out to be Celine Dion’s “The Prayer,” which built to a crescendo that was made all the more exhilarating by its operatic adaptation.
“We were sitting down with the producers of the show and we had a few song choices that we brought to them,” said Bretan. “They had their own song choices, and they strongly encouraged me to listen to them. I had heard ‘The Prayer’ before, and they wanted me to sing it, so they transformed the song to make it just for me.”
Bretan made it all the way to the finals on “AGT,” and though she ultimately lost to a more blatantly commercial act, she did win “Romania’s Got Talent” in June. This was an especially poignant victory for her, considering her family’s Romanian heritage. On the evening we spoke on the phone, Bretan had just finished celebrating the National Day of Romania.
“Everything I do revolves around the Romanian culture,” said Bretan. “I grew up in a Romanian church community. Literally everything we eat at home is Romanian food, and we basically dress the same as they do in Romania. It’s like we brought a little piece of Romania to America.”
Yet what made her triumph on “Romania’s Got Talent” all the more special was the fact that she was initially encouraged to go on the show by her beloved grandfather, who passed away in January.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I remember my grandfather standing on the doorstep, waiting for me,” said Bretan. “We would do everything together. He loved music just like I do, and he was fascinated by it. Every time he would hear me sing, he would always shed a tear and encourage me to keep going on strong. He told me that while it’s not going to be easy, I should follow the big dream that I have in mind and never give it up.”
Among Bretan’s future dreams would be to expand her focus beyond the realm of opera, tackling genres such as Christian pop and “a little bit of jazz.” On her Facebook page, she recently posted a video of herself singing “Writing’s on the Wall” (exceptionally well, I may add), as well as performing a duet of “Say Something” with another musical prodigy, pianist Ethan Bortnick.
“I think that Ethan is so incredible,” said Bretan. “He composes music and when I watch him play, it looks like the piano is going to catch on fire. That’s how fast he moves his fingers. It’s the coolest thing that anyone can ever experience.”
Since there is a degree of theatricality in Bretan’s intensely passionate vocals, I asked her if acting might be another of her future dreams, and her answer was an enthusiastic yes. Though she may have to wait a few years to play roles like Maria in “West Side Story,” she could already dub Natalie Wood in the musical’s 1961 film adaptation with effortless ease. Yet there is one role that Bretan already has her sights on.
“I really love Andrew Lloyd Webber,” said Bretan. “When I watched ‘The Phantom of the Opera,’ I fell in love with the music, and thought it was so cool how everything was created, including the costumes. My favorite song was ‘Think of Me,’ where Christine is singing on the stage while wearing that beautiful gown.”
Beyond her extraordinary talent, what makes Bretan a great artist is the raw emotion that she is able to convey through her work. Her stated goal is to provide an audience with hope, and that is precisely what she has done for me in what has been a profoundly difficult year, not just for myself but for much of the country. Bretan’s performances have given me as much uplift as any film I’ve seen this year, and I’ve seen many great ones, including a few from Romania (“Toni Erdmann,” “Graduation,” “Sieranevada”). There is a power to her vocals that is unmistakably spiritual, and it has the ability to connect with people regardless of their particular faith or beliefs.
“I feel like every single person has been blessed by God with their talent and mine just happens to be with music,” said Bretan. “I believe it’s true that music can heal. It’s God’s way of showing the world His creation and when people hear my music, I want them to feel something. The joy of seeing other people smile is just one of those feelings you get inside. It’s like a warmth. It’s so heartwarming to see people enjoy your music and be happy because this world is full of struggles. It’s really nice to get away from everyday problems and enjoy the beauty of life.”
Laura Bretan will be performing at the Chicago Bulls game on Saturday, December 10th at 7pm; at the “Concert Caritabil” in Romania on Thursday, December 15th at 5:30pm; and will be performing at Ethan Bortnick’s holiday concert at the SWFL Performing Arts Center in Florida on Sunday, December 18th at 2pm & 7:30pm. For more information, visit Bretan’s official Facebook page.