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When Josh Groban comes to Manhattan tonight, he'll have Radio City Music Hall to himself.

But in the music marketplace, the 23-year-old baritone, known for his operatic voice and soft pop ballads, is about to have company.

With his latest album, "Closer," selling nearly 3 million copies, Groban has become the poster boy for the classical crossover genre, an oft-derided but increasingly popular style of music. But there's a growing pack of similar artists looking to steal some of his limelight. Some are younger than Groban, some are sexier, and some are already rewriting the rules of this relatively new genre. Among the competitors: the Norwegian singer Sissel, 16-year-old Hayley Westenra, the five-member Amici Forever and the alluringly named Opera Babes.

It's all part of the music industry's attempt to find new stars at a time when record sales are in their third straight year of declines. Overall dollar sales in 2003 were down 8 percent over the previous year, according to the research firm NPD Group, with sales to teens decreasing at an even steeper 15 percent. One of last year's bright spots, however, was a 6 percent uptick among listeners in the 55-to-64 age range.

Choice selections

Those older listeners "may feel a little disenfranchised" by today's teen-oriented music, says Christopher Roberts, chairman of Universal Classics Group. But with the boom in classical crossover, he notes, "All of a sudden, there seem to be choices for them."

Classical crossover is a broad term for just about any artist whose repertoire includes both classical pieces and soft pop. Increasingly, they're singing tailor-made songs that blur the line between genres. Most crossover singers possess not only classically trained voices, but also the youth and beauty of modern-day pop stars.

Neither pop nor classical stations play these artists much, so record labels have had to find more creative marketing avenues, particularly television. One of Groban's big breaks came while singing at the 1999 inauguration of California Gov. Gray Davis; that led to an appearance on the Fox TV show "Ally McBeal." Amici Forever recently appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America." Westenra's label is hoping to see her in a PBS special, like Groban and Sarah Brightman before her.

"We're not going after teenagers," says Roberts. "We're not trying to get her videos on VH1."

While artists such as Groban, Andrea Bocelli and Charlotte Church have sold millions of albums, critics have been less accepting. Crossover singers are often accused of "dumbing down" classical music by chopping complex compositions into short songlets that are familiar ("Ave Maria" is a favorite) and easy to digest. A more stinging criticism is that most of these artists couldn't cut it in the demanding world of opera.

"It's a whole system of singing in which a person learns breath support and they use their body for amplification, because you don't use a microphone," says Maitland Peters, chairman of the Manhattan School of Music's voice department. "The requirements are extreme."

Most artists say they're not looking for validation from classical critics. "Every once in a while," says Groban, "my CD will be put on a classical reviewer's desk, which, I think, is a terrible mistake. It's not meant for them. It's not meant for that world."

Like fine wine

Still, crossover singers often play up their training and vocal skills to distinguish themselves from run-of-the-mill pop stars. For the average listener, that helps give the music a certain snob appeal, says Brian Kellow, an editor at Opera News in New York. "It's like having a really great wine cellar or something," he says. "They feel like it gives their lives a certain tone to listen to this music."

Groban isn't the first crossover artist to capture the public imagination. One of the genre's early stars was Mario Lanza, a tenor-turned-crooner in the 1950s who recorded familiar opera pieces ("Aida," "O Sole Mio") as well as pop ditties ("Boom Biddy Boom Boom"). During the 1960s, soprano Eileen Farrell divided her time between the Metropolitan Opera and making jazz albums. New Zealand's Dame Kiri TeKanawa, a world-class soprano during the 1980s, disappointed many purists by dabbling in American standards, Irish folk tunes and Beatles songs.

Billboard started charting the genre in 1986 but didn't name it Classical Crossover until 1993, when the music began booming in earnest. For most of today's listeners, the genre begins in the early 1990s with Italian-born tenor Bocelli, who studied with Luciano Pavarotti before pursuing a pop career. His 1999 album "Sogno," featuring a duet with Celine Dion called "The Prayer," sold more than 10 million copies. Bocelli's mainstream success opened doors for the Three Tenors (a trio led by Pavarotti) and for the Welsh soprano Church, who released her blockbuster album "Voice of an Angel" in 1998 at the age of 12.

Crossover generally tries to make classical music palatable to pop audiences, but the genre's rules are changing. These days, artists often work in the opposite direction, taking modern pop songs and turning them into classical-sounding pieces.

Groban, for instance, frequently performs an orchestral version of "My December" by the rap-rock group Linkin Park. Fans of both Linkin Park and classical music heaped scorn on the rendition, but Groban defends his choice: "The melody is universal, the lyrics are very universal and it's very poetic," he says. "I thought: -- it, let's put an 80-piece orchestra on it and see how it sounds. We went all the way with it."

Symphonic strings attached

Amici Forever takes a similar tack with a version of the Righteous Brothers' 1965 ballad "Unchained Melody," adding symphonic strings and translating the lyrics into Italian. (It's now called "Senza Catene.") Nick Garrett, Amici Forever's bass baritone, predicts more such genre-blurring in the future. "Classical crossover has got to develop," the South London- based singer says. "I think the songwriters are going to have to be more imaginative in the future. There are only so many times you can hear 'O Sole Mio' with a beat."

Some crossover stars weren't really classical singers in the first place. Sissel began her career as an Enya-like chanteuse singing soft pop, traditional Norwegian songs and American standards. She was also featured on several songs for the soundtrack to "Titanic." But her new disc for Universal Classics, "My Heart," contains a wealth of classical material, from "Ave Maria" to "O Mio Babbino Caro." (She also reprises "You Raise Me Up," a hit for Groban.)

"It's because this genre called Classical Crossover suddenly popped up, and it suited me very well," she explains. "It had always been difficult for record companies to figure out where to put me. And now, it's easy."

Like Sissel, Westenra, 16, lacks extensive classical training. Decca Records, however, is marketing her as a crossover star. Despite her young age, "there's something really adult about her," says Roberts, chairman of Decca's parent company, Universal, "and that's part of the appeal to an adult audience."

Westenra's latest album, "Pure," already has sold millions in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, and is scheduled for release Tuesday in the United States. The album features the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and segments of modern compositions such as Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana." But Westenra herself has no pretensions: "I don't really know what opera is," she admits. "Basically, I'm just singing a song about love."

One thing all crossover artists share: The arresting good looks of pop stars. Westenra could pass for an Avril Lavigne or a Pink with her dyed, braided hair. The singers in Amici Forever (billed as the first "opera band") dress in chic outfits and perform holding wireless microphones. The duo Opera Babes sport leopard print tops and glossy red lipstick on their Sony Classical debut, "Beyond Imagination."

"You've got to look at the modern world - it's all about packaging," says Opera Babes mezzo-soprano Karen England. "Opera Babes is just a name - it doesn't dictate what we do or how good we are."

Jeb Hart, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at RCA Victor Group, which handles Amici Forever, agrees: "You've got to have sex appeal to get out there," he says. "Sometimes you need a great-looking group of people who are cool and classically trained. That's better than having big opera stars just at the Met. They're not going to be on 'Good Morning America.'"

For his part, Groban welcomes the competition. "We're all responsible to make it great, and something people will look at open-mindedly and with credibility," he says. "I don't want to do opera, and I'm not a rock singer, but I enjoy experimenting with different things. And I've found a category."


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Article located by the Roger Mansbridge

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