Josh Groban comes to Manhattan tonight, he'll have Radio
City Music Hall to himself.
in the music marketplace, the 23-year-old baritone,
known for his operatic voice and soft pop ballads, is
about to have company.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
not going after teenagers," says Roberts. "We're
not trying to get her videos on VH1."
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
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
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."
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."
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."
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
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."
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.'"
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."