The Arizona Republic
Thursday, July 29th 2004 12:00 AM_

News Menu Button Classically trained singers happily crossing over

Nekesa Mumbi Moody
Associated Press

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 semioperatic, semicheesy 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 of people who perhaps wouldn't hear you otherwise," Appleby says. "I was happy in what I was doing, but this was just a different path, an interesting path."

It's 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 with an operatic tilt. Verve Records, which is 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 multiplatinum pipes of Josh Groban.

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," says Sissel, who works with the London Symphony Orchestra on her latest album, My Heart.

"I have to do different styles. If I were to only do classical music, it would be boring to me."

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. Westenra even remakes the song Wuthering Heights from 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 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.

"The main challenge on these last two albums is getting everything that I like to do on the album, opening my voice up in a classical way, finding music that's eclectic and working with pop and rock music, but still making it feel like a complete album from beginning to end," Groban says.

"I didn't realize . . . what genre I was in until lots of other artists were coming out doing the same thing," he says. "Classical crossover was not something that I was even aware of when I was making this album."

It's not new. Church sold millions of records worldwide after her 1999 debut, and opera tenor Andrea Bocelli has reached the huge Oprah audience with his recordings. Russell Watson, who was not trained as a classical singer, also had big success with his classically inspired debut in 2001.

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

Then there are pop musicians who have dabbled in classical music. Billy Joel released Fantasies & Delusions, an album of his own classical compositions, and Elvis Costello has recorded with soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter and the Brodsky Quartet.

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 says. "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."

Amici baritone Nick Garrett says entertainment is a major component for his group, which features Appleby, soprano Tsakane Valentine, tenor Geoff Sewell and another baritone, David Habbin.

"We entertain; it's all about the singing. People who like classical singing with a little bit of a pop feel, they're the kind of people we're trying to entertain," he says. "It's not really about opera. It's more about a classical style of singing, not a purely pop style."

Still, Appleby bristles at the notion that her current work is less taxing.

"It's more demanding. I sing the same way as I've always done. In some venues, we use microphones, but that can be harder work," she says. "We're not singing in a different way. The feel is different."


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Thanks to Gerrit Kroeze for forwarding the link to this article
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