Posted on Friday, July. 23, 2004

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pop music

Singer Hayley Westenra made her U.S. debut with "Pure," an album of opera, classic songs and airy ballads. -- Jim Cooper / Associated Press

By Nekesa Mumbi Moody

Associated Press
July 23, 2004

NEW YORK -- Jo Appleby studied opera for years, won coveted roles in key operas and performed at some of the most revered venues in classical music.

Yet this year you'll hear her soprano on a semi-operatic, semi-cheesy version of "Unchained Melody" with four other classically trained singers in the group Amici forever, which bills itself as the "world's first opera band."

"You get to sing to a wider audience, to people who perhaps wouldn't hear you otherwise," Appleby said. "I was happy in what I was doing, but this was just a different path, an interesting path."

And a path chosen by more and more acts with classical backgrounds. This spring, 17-year-old Hayley Westenra -- whom some have called New Zealand's answer to former classical cherub Charlotte Church -- made her U.S. debut with "Pure," an album of opera, classic songs and airy ballads.

Verve Records, primarily a jazz label, is readying the debut of Joshua Payne, a hunky, high-powered tenor who's classically trained, with a voice like the best-selling Josh Groban's.

And Norwegian singer Sissel, though not a classically trained performer, has been touring the country showcasing her musical mix of classical songs with a smooth, pop feel.

"I've always done all different styles. I always did a little bit of classical, a little bit of pop and a little bit of folk," explains Sissel, who works with the London Symphony Orchestra on her latest album, "My Heart."

Broadway show tunes were Westenra's first inspiration, then operas. She also worked with a choral group called Canterbury Opera Youth and has received voice lessons from opera singer Dame Malvina Major.

Yet "Pure," the fastest-selling classical debut in Britain's history, is hardly a pure classical album. She even remakes the song "Wuthering Heights" by pop singer Kate Bush.

"People are not so afraid to combine different styles in the classical area. People are having fun exploring," says Westenra, whose album has sold more than 40,000 copies in the United States, stellar sales for a classical disc.

"I think it kind of appeals to both," she says. "They do like classical music, but they do enjoy listening to something lighter. It's kind of fun and interesting, listening to such a mixture."

Melding classical music into a pop-palatable project has certainly boosted record sales. Whereas a pure classical record is considered a success if it sells a few thousand copies, classical crossover records can sell upward of 100,000 albums -- and in Groban's case, in the millions.

The 23-year-old Groban, who trained vocally for classical and pop, has been the genre's biggest success story in years. He made his self-titled debut in 2002 and sold more than 2 million albums; his latest disc, "Closer," is approaching 4 million.

"There really is kind of a broad spectrum from left to right. You might have composers or musicians who are really at their core classical people but are inspired by popular artists," said Edward Bilous of Juilliard.

Bilous says classical crossover tends to appeal to an audience tired of slick pop but perhaps too intimidated by "pure" classical music.

"Basically, classical music does take a little bit more work to get into than pop music . . . it's more complex," he said. "You have to spend time getting into it. People nowadays are not interested in working toward their artistic experience. What they're interested in is being more entertained."

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