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Opera? You must be kidding
Operatic boyband
Operatic boyband ... Il Divo's concerts may be cloying, but their fans love them

SO, WHAT can we expect when the four-member operatic boy band Il Divo plays its two sold-out concerts at QPAC on Monday and Tuesday?

"The concert was a schlocky, cloying and highly contrived display with an unvaried sound and stage act that could make any music-lover turn away in embarrassment," sneered The Washington Post reviewer after a performance in the US capital last month.

But try telling that to the capacity audience who gave the very same gig a standing ovation, and in particular to one of them who threw her purple G-string on stage.

What charms the pants off one person is not necessarily the stuff of musical excellence.

And therein lies the inherent contradiction of operatic pop.

Blame it on The Three Tenors, who at the 1990 Soccer World Cup cashed in their artistic chips to form the most improbable boy band yet.

With their repertoire of operatic blockbusters and popular classics topping the charts, a new commercial genre was born.

Now, as the ageing Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras fade from the scene, a new generation of slicker, slimmer and often louder vocalists is taking their place at the top of the so-called "classical" charts.

They're led by Andrea Bocelli, with his heart-rending vulnerability and woeful vocal technique, while others including Russell Watson, Josh Groban, Hayley Westenra and Mario Frangoulis sound like opera singers, but their repertoire, marketing and stage presentation comes straight out of middle-of-the-road pop.

Opera now even has its equivalents of the Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls, with vocal groups like Amici Forever, who played QPAC last month, and the Opera Babes oozing sex appeal while massacring the classics.

And now, when shame has been left far behind, there's Il Divo, four attractive young men handpicked by entrepreneurial guru Simon Cowell to take operatic boy bands to a new level of commercial success.

And judging by the five million-plus sales of their first two albums, the ability of the multilingual quartet to make women remove their underwear is second only to their skill in shaking cash out of their wallets.

In some weeks they've been shifting 150,000 CDs.

It's a stereotypical foreign affair, with the "band" consisting of American tenor David Miller, French pop heartthrob Sebastien Izambard, Spanish baritone Carlos Marin and the flowing-locked Swiss tenor Urs Buhler.

The repertoire includes Toni Braxton's Unbreak My Heart, a vocal version of Ennio Morricone's theme from The Mission, plus the obligatory Feelings – the latter a particularly popular addition seeing as its sentimentality has found it banned in some late-night cocktail bars.

Well may we mock, but based on his experience as the Svengali behind boy bands like Five and Westlife, Cowell clearly knows his job.

Indeed, long before he became the nasty judge on American Idol, the Englishman's production company was involved in the World Wrestling Entertainment spectaculars, wherein the noble, ancient sport is transformed into a stadium spectacle of raw emotion, hysteria and melodrama.

Part-Springer show, part-Vegas choreography, the WWE extravaganza is all about emotion overwhelming rationality.

Cowell's entertainment motto seems to be that life is meant to be cheesy. His Idol phenomena (Pop Idol in Britain, American Idol) in particular have tugged at heartstrings and generated audience fanaticism far in excess of the actual talent on offer.

"The Cowell principle" has little to do with the original artform. It's about making it over into entertainment.

And Cowell is now doing for opera what he did for wrestling in WWE and the eisteddfod in Idol. With his four cliched frontmen singing in the languages of love, Il Divo pushes the traditional operatic gestures into the realm of pure passion, transcending the need for any specialist knowledge and instantly engaging with the emotions.

Never mind the outrageous roughness of some of the vocalising. It's all about the show, the bonhomie, the charm offensive and giving the punters what they want.

After two years of searching for the artists, followed by months of rehearsals in London during 2004, Il Divo was unleashed on the world as something like the love children of The Three Tenors, except you can't imagine any of these blokes singing a lead role at the Met.

Their demographic is the audience that in previous eras went nuts for Julio Iglesias, Tom Jones and Fabio.

All this, of course, makes the classical concert organisations tear their hair out in frustration.

The fact is that after decades of the phenomenon, it's clear that audiences attracted to these commercial presentations of the classics very rarely cross over into the mainstream concert hall.

Just as WWE fans don't usually go to their local PCYC to watch real wrestlers ply their trade, so too you're unlikely to find Il Divo's audience backing up for The Queensland Orchestra's performance of the Mahler Second Symphony later in the year.

And that's why it's pointless to discuss Il Divo and their countless chart-topping colleagues from the standpoint of traditional criticism.

When the sideshow's in town, there's no point in sending the filet mignon expert to review the brightly coloured, sugary fairy-floss. It's all about the gorging punters and the sales volume.

source : Courier Mail (OZ) : © Queensland Newspapers
credits : jon iler
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