Fame, Fate, and the Boy Soprano
Three months after unexpectedly sharing the stage with Pope Francis on the Parkway, Bobby Hill is still being recognized everywhere he goes.
Consider just this past week: On Monday, Bobby’s father took him shopping for a new suit, and whether they were at Joseph A. Bank at Liberty Place or the Boscov’s in Plymouth Meeting, people would point and whisper Isn’t that the kid who sang for the pope?
On Wednesday, in Beverly Hills, where the 14-year-old was honored at the Ebony Power 100 gala along with John Legend, Prince, and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, music managers and agents shoved business cards in his face while members of the African-American power crowd snapped selfies with him.
And this Sunday afternoon, someone will no doubt recognize him as he walks the red carpet at the Broadway premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock. Certainly Sir Andrew will know who he is — Hill is going as the legendary composer’s invited guest.
Bobby Hill’s newfound fame arose because the millions who saw him sing for Pope Francis — a performance that Hill didn’t even know would happen until five minutes before he walked out on stage — fell in love with his heavenly voice. But at 14 and on a collision course with puberty, will he still be an angelic soprano by the time he is to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy Ball in January — or will his voice go all Peter Brady on him?
“He is supposed to sing with the Orchestra, yes,” says longtime mentor and instructor Steven Fisher, co-founder of the Keystone State Boychoir. “But I am worried that he is not going to make it. His voice is a ticking time bomb.”
BOBBY HILL GETS HEADACHES. Lots of headaches.
The son of Jerry, a real estate agent, and Karla, an HR consultant for the city, Hill had two main interests as an elementary school student: the choir, which he’d started at age 7 after a music teacher at Germantown Friends recognized his promise, and ice hockey. But at 11, he sustained a serious concussion while attempting to jump over obstacles on the ice during practice at a rink in West Oak Lane. (His parents thank God that he was wearing a helmet.) The concussion, which took months to fully recover from, forced Hill to quit the team.
With hockey no longer an option, singing became his focus. Then, in a stroke of luck as bad as his recent luck has been good, he sustained yet another concussion and other injuries in 2014 when he fell down a flight of stairs at the Girard Academic Music Program middle school. Hill, the kind of kid who talks to everybody, was having a conversation with a student at the top of a staircase, his back facing the stairs. Turning to leave without realizing how close he was to the edge, he lost his footing and flew all the way down to the bottom. The first concussion had been bad; this one was much worse.
After the accident, doctors diagnosed Hill with ocular motor dysfunction. His visual tracking is off, which means that there might be something in front of him that his brain just doesn’t realize he’s looking at, and images can be distorted. The headaches are often fierce. “My eyes get tired frequently,” he says. He’s also asthmatic. As a result, Hill, who is now enrolled at Central High, is what’s known as a homebound student. “They send a teacher to my house every week,” he says.
This medically required schooling arrangement has one unexpected advantage — it gives the family at least a shot at managing Hill’s schedule, which has become quite a challenge. He was, for example, supposed to sing at the City Hall Christmas tree lighting with Mayor Nutter this past Thursday, but a car service mishap in Los Angeles made him miss his flight. And he was scheduled to lend his voice to the tree lighting at the Blue Cross RiverRink on Friday night, but he had to cancel that one as well, because he got his third callback for a top-secret “prime-time TV pilot,” as Fisher describes it.
When I ask about the upcoming Academy Ball performance, Hill pauses. “The Academy what? Oh, oh, oh, yeah, that thing with the Orchestra. I guess I’ll have to figure out what to sing.”
“It sure has been hectic,” says his father. “A lot of jumping up at the last minute and throwing on a suit and tie and making sure he looks right. But it’s so exciting for him. He is just right up there in the clouds.”
THE KEYSTONE STATE BOYCHOIR hadn’t even bothered applying to perform during Pope Francis’s visit to Philadelphia. The World Meeting of Families was flooded with applications from local choirs and other musicians and performers who wanted to be a part of the huge event. With all of the chaos and competition, Keystone State decided to sit this one out.
Colombian pop star Juanes was slotted as one of the concert’s main acts, joining such musical luminaries as Andrea Bocelli and Aretha Franklin. But two weeks before the concert, Juanes decided that he needed a boys’ and girls’ choir to accompany him; the producers reached out to Keystone State, with which they had worked before, and its female counterpart, the Pennsylvania Girlchoir. The choirs signed on to do a song.
After Juanes rehearsed with the choirs during the day in front of the Art Museum, the producers came to Steve Fisher with a problem: An unexpected set change was required, and they needed a 60-second performance to cover it, so that Pope Francis and the massive worldwide audience had something to look at other than stagehands moving stuff around. The producers suggested the choirs, which Fisher laughed at, since you can barely get a choir of 75 onto a stage in 60 seconds.
Then Fisher suggested Bobby Hill.
“We were standing there in the control room, and the producers are asking me if I’m sure I want to do this to this kid,” Fisher remembers. They said they’d consider it and get back to him, and Fisher didn’t mention anything to Hill, not wanting to get his hopes up … or freak him out. With the concert well under way, the producers found Fisher and gave him the green light. The only catch was that Hill had to go on in five minutes. Unrehearsed. And without any musical accompaniment.
“Either he has nerves of steel or he just doesn’t know what he doesn’t know,” Fisher says today. “And God bless him, he did it.”
As the stagehands began working, 6 ABC co-hosts Brian Taff and Sharrie Williams started filling the time on their live broadcast, chatting about the “celebratory mood” on the Parkway. Taff was all but forced to stop mid-sentence as a bright, ethereal sound wafted into the air. No one had a clue what was going on, because the performance wasn’t on any of the production schedules.
A few seconds later, as rousing cheers began to swell through the huge crowd assembled in the city that night, the camera found him: a baby-faced kid from Northwest Philadelphia wearing a polo shirt and singing with the voice of an angel.
“I was confused and a bit stunned,” says Hill of those first seconds on stage. “I wasn’t really concentrating on the music. The first thing I noticed was the skyline. I remember seeing City Hall and the big clock. And I just kept going.”
With Pope Francis seated just behind him, Hill performed “Pie Jesu” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1985 Requiem, a song originally sung by English soprano Sarah Brightman. The pope looked on intently, while the church official seated next to him couldn’t help but smile the entire time. “Like everybody present, I was struck by the purity of Bobby’s voice and the sincerity of his singing,” says Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who took part in the concert as well.
After the brief performance, with audience members visibly weeping, Hill walked up to the pope and handed him a rock that the choir had brought back from a trip to Antarctica. Then Hill shared an amusing moment with Wahlberg, telling the actor that he had loved him in Ted, a decidedly R-rated movie. “I have always hoped that the good Lord has a sense of humor when it comes to … many of the movies that I’ve made,” Wahlberg quipped.
And just like that, Bobby Hill’s life changed forever.
“As soon as I got off the stage, CNN contacted the choir manager,” says Hill. Before it could all sink in, he was on the air with Chris Cuomo and Poppy Harlow, who were on location covering the World Meeting of Families events for the network. The next day, Hill was whisked away to New York and bounced around from one studio to the next, sitting for at least ten interviews.
By all accounts, Hill’s instant renown doesn’t seem to have gone to his head. “There’s just no ego whatsoever,” says his father. “He’s very grounded in the fact that this is a blessing that has fallen upon him. It’s not because of him only, and it’s not for him only.”
Jerry points to a conversation the family had at the airport on Thursday while waiting for a flight back to Philadelphia. Shortly after the pope concert, Bobby performed at the women’s prison at Riverside, and now he’s insisting on finding the time before Christmas to perform at a men’s prison. He also wants to throw a benefit either at the Kimmel Center or in New York in February for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
No doubt Hill’s phone is going to continue to ring off the hook with calls from concert promoters, record labels, and musical groups looking to tap into — and cash in on — that angelic voice. But what’s going to happen when that voice is no longer quite as angelic?
“We just discovered two pimples on his face the other day,” Fisher says, sounding absolutely horrified.
AND THAT’S WHAT LEADS US to the bittersweet part of Hill’s story: His future as a male soprano is inescapably limited. In fact, Fisher says, the very beauty of Hill’s voice indicates that the end of this stage of his singing career is near.
“It’s always the brightest just before the darkness comes,” Fisher says, explaining that a young male soprano’s voice tends to be at its absolute best right before it starts cracking. Had Hill had this kind of opportunity when he was, say, 10, he would have had at least a few good years to capitalize on his voice … except that his voice wasn’t this perfect until right now.
Fisher once worked with another 14-year-old singer who was about to make his debut as a soloist at Carnegie Hall, of all places, when the boy’s voice cracked in the green room. “And that’s how it happens,” laments Fisher. “I couldn’t believe it. We had to send somebody else out there.”
Hill says he hopes he has a couple of years left in his high register, pointing out that his brother’s voice didn’t change until he was 16. “It is nerve-wracking,” he admits. “I’ve gotten a lot out of my soprano voice, but if it were to change” — as if there’s any if in this equation — “I will be disappointed.”
“He knows it’s something that’s in the hands of someone that knows better than all of us,” says Jerry. “I take it in stride. At the end of the day, he’s just a regular little kid from Philly with a gift, and hopefully that gift will reconfigure itself to his adult body and adult vocal chords.”
It’s not as if the choir will kick him out when his voice cracks; members can stay until they are 18. But for about six months, he’ll be restricted to one octave around middle C as his voice settles into a bass or tenor range. “If you ask boys with unchanged voices what they want to be — a bass or tenor — many will say bass,” says Fisher. “It’s all about the bass. For your average boy, bass signifies manliness.”
But Hill, being a smart kid, is pulling for the tenor. Tenors are far more marketable than basses. See: Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras, and the majority of male pop and rock vocalists who have made it big, Barry White notwithstanding. “You’ve never heard of ‘The Three Basses,’” Fisher rightly points out.
Hill’s personal playlist consists mostly of pop, like Bruno Mars, Sam Smith, and John Legend, but he says he sees himself with a career in opera. “I’d like to do a more classical thing,” he explains. “Like maybe venture into being a Pavarotti.”
To be the next Pavarotti, Hill will almost certainly need to go to conservatory (he was invited to tour Juilliard, but a trip to Jakarta, Indonesia, to sing at a 50th wedding anniversary party interfered with the visit). His parents are obviously supportive of his pursuit of music, but as far as they are concerned, music might have to wait for graduate studies.
“A strong liberal arts education is something that we feel is very important,” says Jerry, who adds that he’s hoping that his son’s fledgling career in music might help support the college goal. “Somewhere, there’s a picture of him standing in front of Harvard University Medical School and smiling. He’s made it quite clear that we’re not getting off with an affordable tuition.”
STEVEN FISHER IS CONVINCED that we’ll one day be writing about Hill’s debut at the Met. Maybe we’ll see him playing Calaf in Puccini’s Turandot, singing “Nessun Dorma,” the song that both Domingo and Pavarotti repopularized in 1994, back when Bobby was still seven years away from joining the world.
But Bobby also realizes that the path to Pavarotti is a long one, and says he’s certainly open to exploring the classical crossover genre, which includes people like Sarah Brightman, Josh Groban, Céline Dion and Andrea Bocelli, whom he had the chance to meet on the day of the papal concert.
It was hours before Bocelli would perform a moving rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” for Pope Francis and before fate, kismet, or perhaps the hand of God would intervene to put Bobby out on that same stage singing his own tribute to the pontiff.
Under a glorious, cloud-streaked sky behind the Art Museum, the 57-year-old Italian tenor, blind after his own sports injury when he was 12, stood there as Bobby was introduced to him as an aspiring opera singer. It was clearly one of those obligatory “star” moments for Bocelli, a guy who is, no doubt, constantly accosted by fans and “aspiring opera singers” alike. Instead of asking for career advice or an autograph, Bobby opened his mouth and belted out “Pie Jesu,” the song that he would sing for the pope and for the world just hours later.
Yes, you heard that right. This 14-year-old from Northwest Philly just decided to sing, unsolicited, for one of the greatest tenors alive today. Fearless.
Bocelli’s face lit up, and he uttered a most universal word of amazement: “Wow!” Bobby continued, and after he was done, as Bocelli was walking away, he shouted after Bobby, “Bellissimo! Belissimo!”
Hill recounts the moment on Wednesday afternoon as he awaits his soundcheck slot for the Ebony gala, where he would go on to sing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” later that night, naturally to thunderous applause.
In between feedback on the loudspeakers in the ballroom, which prompts him to put the phone down temporarily, he says that he still loves to ice skate, despite the hockey injury. He’s even thinking of singing while skating at the RiverRink event, the one that he’ll have to cancel two days later.
“I like to play outside and get fresh air,” he says. “You know, normal kid stuff.”
But he seems to recognize that change is afoot. After all, when he looks in the mirror in the dressing room, he suddenly sees a kid with two pimples staring back at him.
There’s the coolest of pauses.
“I guess I’ll have to start putting some kind of acne cream on my face,” he says.