arts telegraph27 September 2003

When pop and opera collide

Hayley Westenra is one of the latest in a string of singers to plunder the lucrative crossover market. Rupert Christiansen surveys the leading lights in an often gruesome field.

Pop-opera crossover is a record company obsession. This week 16-year-old New Zealand soprano Hayley Westenra, signed for £3 million by Universal, entered the classical charts at number one and – much more lucratively – the pop album charts at number eight. Competing with Westenra are BMG's grisly "opera band" Amici, who entered the classical chart at number two. The combined marketing budget for the two acts is said to be £6 million.

Hayley Westenra
Hayley Westenra: entered the pop charts at number eight

There's nothing new about opera stars singing popular tunes, or popular singers attempting classical ones, and nothing intrinsically wrong with it either. Caruso, like Pavarotti, could fill baseball stadiums as well as opera houses. But over the past decade, some horrible things have happened to this healthy two-way traffic. The causes can be defined thus:


  External links
Hayley Westenra
Russell Watson
Lesley Garrett
Charlotte Church
20 December 2002: Terfel chills the windy city
2 May 2002: 'We're not Page Three babes . . .' [interview with the Opera Babes]
1 December 2000[Health]: 'I'm not old enough for a shady past' [interview with Charlotte Church]
24 May 1997: 'He'll be bigger than Pavarotti' [interview with Andrea Bocelli]


1 A paranoid notion that classical music is for posh middle-aged white folks only – and the attendant idea that it has to be sexed up before ordinary people can appreciate it.

2 A diminution of our attention spans; we just want big tunes, and couldn't care less about the finer points.

3 The transformation of natural sound into mere fodder for a recording technology that can make voices do what they couldn't possibly do live.

The result is mayhem. Crossover once took place on a peaceful side-road. Now it swirls round a vast Spaghetti Junction. There are no traffic lights, and a shocking number of fatal pile-ups…

Three Tenors... and sons

As part of the 1990 World Cup jamboree, three top operatic tenors – Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and José Carreras – joined forces for a programme of operatic chestnuts, Neapolitan tra-la, show tunes and pop standards which captured the imagination of male footie fans as well as the female market for lovable crooners. The recording sold in its tens of millions, and excited the music business as to the further possibilities of this sort of crossover. Since then, the spin-offs have included the Irish Tenors, the Celtic Tenors, and most recently the Two Tenors' Duetto, unveiled in Italy this summer by Sony, featuring the young voices of Salvatore Licitra and Marcelo Alvarez in a programme of staggering vulgarity and mediocrity. The album thankfully has not yet been released in this country.

The original Three Tenors still turn out for the occasional gig - they were in Bath last month marking the re-opening of the spa. But their throats are tired now, and those once-great voices have turned hard and wobbly.

Andrea Bocelli

The biggest seller of them all, clocking up an estimated 45 million album sales worldwide. An Italian tenor in the Mario Lanza mould, who sings everything in the same heavy-handed sentimental style. Ambitious for acceptance by the classical establishment, and has attempted the occasional unmiked live opera performance – witnesses remarked how little stamina he possessed. There's a voice there, sure, but no artistry. A victim of glaucoma, Bocelli has been blind since the age of 12.

Bryn Terfel

The real thing. Son of a Welsh sheep farmer, who looks like a cross between Meat Loaf and the Hulk, but whose magnificent natural bass-baritone and likeable personality make him potentially the world's biggest male opera star since Pavarotti. Sings regularly at Covent Garden and the Met, excelling in Mozart and Wagner, but can also croon Danny Boy and the Titanic theme-song or duet alongside Shirley Bassey or Catatonia without inducing cringe. His new crossover album Bryn (Deutsche Grammophon) will be released next month, with a BBC1 documentary on his life scheduled for November.

Russell Watson

A cheeky chappie from Salford, above, formerly a lathe operator, whose break from working men's clubs came when he cheer-led a Manchester United v Spurs match with the ultimate crossover anthem "Nessun dorma". Over a pint at the Dog and Duck, he might sound good; the astonishing, and depressing, thing is that he seems to be appreciated anywhere else. A recent television documentary showed fame getting to him, and the tabloids screamed love-rat after his marriage bust-up. Big in America, where he competes in a similar repertory with Josh Groban,- a name as yet unknown in the UK and Europe. Russell dreams of breaking into Hollywood. Dream on.

Lesley Garrett

Hugely determined soubrette soprano who realised that, despite mooning the audience in English National Opera's production of Die Fledermaus, she wasn't likely to develop a front-rank opera career. Instead she reinvented herself as "the diva from Doncaster", a perky down-to-earth Northern lass who could belt her way through Classic FM hits alongside show tunes and a bit of anodyne pop. Soon became a big television name and won a devoted following in twilight homes. Has made a bomb in the UK, but failed to crack the European or US market.

Charlotte Church

In 1998 a cute and confident 12-year-old girl from Cardiff signed a £100,000 contract with Sony, announcing that her ambition was "to sing Madame Butterfly at La Scala and get a standing ovation". Just look at Charlotte Church now – a superstar on the strength of her first two albums, who confesses to losing interest in opera and is attempting to break into the cooler realms of rock and hip-hop. Fell out with her manager, quarrelled with her mother over her unsuitable DJ boyfriend and set the lads' mags drooling over her Kylie-ish teenage curves.

Quick-witted and smart-talking – she made a creditable showing on Have I Got News for You? – she remains liable to terrible lapses of taste, such as wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend "Barbie is a crack whore". Church has just won a court case allowing her to cash in her £16 million-odd fortune on her 18th birthday.

Without the amps and the reverb, her soprano emerges as a deeply ordinary instrument – as a child star, Julie Andrews was 10 times more vocally accomplished – and she could no more sing Madame Butterfly than she could fly. But these days that probably doesn't matter: her problem is losing the middle-aged crossover market without establishing any credibility with teenagers, who think her appallingly naff.

Her film debut I'll Be There sank without trace, and sales for her recent American tour were disappointing. Could the public be losing interest?


Tesco checkout lady Jane Gilchrist was a pillar of the Weston-super-Mare G&S Society. Denise Leigh, registered blind, sang with brass bands and church choirs. Until they won the Channel 4 talent show Operatunity earlier this year and each got the chance to perform a scene from Rigoletto at the London Coliseum. Now they're thinking big. EMI will bring out their joint album in October, and there will be a documentary on Channel 4 at Christmas. Can their sweet, small sopranos hack it in the professional musical world? Or will they be two more of television's famous-for15-minutes casualties?


BMG have invested £6 million in this, the world's first opera band, made up of three guys and two girls who look as though they should be fronting Blue Peter. After several appearances at sporting events, their first album, Amici Forever (BMG), is released on Monday. The press release claims that Amici are "set to take audiences around the world by storm with their spine-chilling performances". Indeed.

One of the band, Nicholas Garrett, is a former member of the Swingle Singers and the band can do the close harmony thing quite nicely. But why can't they just sing the music straight, without the wall-of-sound gloss?

Warning: Amici's arrangements of Mozart's trio "Soave sia il vento" and Elgar's Nimrod variation register as severely toxic on all known scales of ear-pollution.

Hayley Westenra

There are several ickle-girly songbirds around, but this 16-year-old New Zealander stands out. Much sweeter, firmer voice and more solid musical ability than Charlotte Church. Turned down an offer to sing at the Beckhams' World Cup party. Recently appointed youngest ever Unicef ambassador. Appears in forthcoming film of Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. Currently on tour with Aled Jones. Her new album Pure has shot straight to the top of the classical charts, and is at No 8 in the pop charts.

Opera Babes

Two pretty girls, Rebecca Knight and Karen England, spotted while busking outside the Royal Opera House and signed up by Sony. Specialise in heavenly carolling of tunes used in the ads for British Airways, Cadbury's Flake and Supersoft toilet tissue. High spot of their career to date: a duet version of Madama Butterfly's "Un bel di" which served as ITV's World Cup 2002 theme tune. Charlotte Church must have been spitting. So must Renata Scotto (HMV Classics, conducted by Barbirolli).

Mysteriously, Sony has dropped them now – a decision "based on concern about projecting the act into an international market". Currently appearing in a touring production of The Mikado – a bit of a comedown, one would have thought, from the guest sofa on Richard and Judy. Or perhaps not.

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