Crossover and its futile “mission”

19 Jul

Having had a few intense exchanges on Twitter about the subject of so called classical crossover artists. With a particular focus on Jackie Evancho (an eleven year old performer who found overnight fame via America’s Got Talent).  It got me thinking what the use of that related branch to operatic and classical performance is.

The start of the habit

Arguably the start of classical crossover dates back to the 50s and the success of Mario Lanza, when his fledgling film career was augmented by large scale sales of records containing Neapolitan song and tenor arias.  His signing of a recording contract with the RCA Gold Seal label, which at the time was recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops and in the early 60s would have Leontyne Price as an exclusive artist.  This started the trend for classical labels to sign MOR/ not classically trained artists to their roster in order to appeal to a much wider audience and to be part of the billboard charts.

Contributing to the “noise”

As a new listener to the orchestral/operatic genres a decade ago found that all the crossover artists just added to the general hype and noise that record companies thrive on. For my day to day discovery of new and old music it was adding another layer of complexity as I had to go though the glossy posters and websites and adverts to get to the basics and discover the artists that really meant something to me. As amongst the hype and over promotion we all have to find our own way and to discover artists that speak to us. In those genres it involves a lot of historic recording made 50 or 60 years ago, providing a plush carpet of experience for the immersion into the music to flourish. We all have different ways into discovering it but somehow don’t think crossover is one of those routes.

Promoting mediocrity

There seem to be two distinct branches of the classical crossover world as we know it. The string of performers with actual longstanding professional careers that diversify into crossover is one branch, the Three Tenors being an obvious example. But then the record companies have created a whole new group of people that end up recording classical/operatic repertoire without having the training or resources needed. In that category seems to be the vast majority of acts. The random talent show fare, the photogenic non entities. It is this second branch that is the most offensive. While Pavarotti in his twilight years singing Non ti scordar di me is a bit sad but at least he can just about fulfil the artistic requirements. On the other hand having Katherine Jenkins murdering the Habanera is not ok. Personally, the most objectionable aspect of this promotion of mediocrity is how it jars with the very art it’s supposed to be promoting.  Opera and classical performance is based around the exaggeration and exaltation of the human capacity to perform within a rigid framework and at the highest level . It requires years of study and dedication in a very competitive field. Yet the record companies are promoting people that can’t sing with the right technique, and depend on being amplified to be heard. Part of the magic of live  opera is the amazing capacity of the singers to project into a large house, it is that almost alchemic value that’s entrancing .

The promotion of those singers, that are not the real deal, creates a distortion in the understanding of what that type of performance is truly about. Trying to shoehorn the genre into a pop mould doesn’t make it more accessible, it just robs the art form of it unique characteristics. The people that book to see Katherine Jenkins in Ipswich would be much better off spending their money elsewhere and be exposed to the real thing.

The way forward is live experience

There are so many inexpensive ways to be immersed in the art form e.g. recitals and semi-professional community groups that the very idea that classical crossover artists create a new audience seems all the more feeble. All it takes for this repertoire to have an audience is plain old fashioned curiosity. We are blessed in London with three world class orchestras, two opera houses and a wealth of venues for all tastes and wallets. All of us that find the genre fulfilling we have to take the matter in our hands, drag friends and relatives to those venues, make them experience the real thing live and see what impact it makes. I am immensely proud of parents that bring their children to live performances, something I wish my parents had done 20 years ago. The other day it was wonderful watching a mother and son taking in the magic that was Sylvie Guillem live. As long as there are people that devote their lives to performance at the highest level I believe there will be audiences to appreciate them. Now if someone can rid us off the execrable classical crossover genre our lives would even richer and the record companies would spend their promo money in more worthwhile causes. 

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7 Responses to “Crossover and its futile “mission””

  1. jjackson 19 July 2011 at 11:12 pm #

    Some of us live no where near an opera house and have to depend on recordings to hear opera. What artists do you suggest?

    • George aka OperaCreep 19 July 2011 at 11:55 pm #

      I’d normally say find a period or composer you love and start from there. For me a good starting point was the bel canto composers, Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini that started me off. There are so many great singers from the last century. If I had to choose a few I’d say Nilsson, Callas, Sills, Simionato, Bumbry from the past, from the current stars I’d say DiDonato, Fleming, Damrau, Westbroek, Lemieux.

  2. R. Hamilton 20 July 2011 at 5:06 am #

    Not everyone follows the same path you did. I was amply exposed to opera (and stage plays) as a child, having done the last three years of high school in Europe. The director of our community choir was an operatic tenor (not a famous one, to be sure).

    Back then, opera mostly bored me, give or take some of the comic operas. Had the programs been printed in English, I might have found it more engaging. Those of us for whom languages don’t come easily, find understanding sung words in a foreign language an almost insurmountable barrier without having researched the plot in advance (much more easily done now than then, back before the Internet and PCs), absent a program printed in a language we can easily absorb.

    Now, some of the CC artists, and one extraordinary young one in particular, have re-established my interest, although I can hardly picture myself attending much in the way of live performances of anything, being less than comfortable in or near even the most civilized of crowds.

    If the path you took brought you to something you enjoy, you are fortunate. Others may share that path, or they make reach the same destination (or as much of it as they wish to) by a different route. But for those with different priorities than yours, appreciating the maximizing of innate talent by long training to allow unamplified performance _need_not_ preclude appreciating performances by those who, at least pending fully formed vocal apparatus and such training, are probably wise to avail themselves of simple amplification rather than damage their instrument.

    Now, had your disfavor for amplification been directed more at the deceptive use of technologies like Auto-Tune (pitch correction), I think you’d find yourself with near-unanimous support!

    Certainly those who have paid their dues for decades and achieved the excellence, projection, and endurance for high-level opera work are worthy of more recognition (and support) than most such receive.

    But unlike what it seems to me your position represents, I don’t think they’re being robbed by the attention that the CC genre gets. Rather, I think they’re being at least somewhat preserved from utter irrelevance to all but the culturally privileged few (of which even fewer are financially equipped to be significant patrons, as once were the European nobility and the American wealthy that wished to emulate them).

    Might I suggest that rather than criticize other paths people may take, a more worthwhile approach to preserving the appreciation of true classical performance might involve creating a friendly, accessible, and non-patronizing tutorial, starting with more approachable pieces as examples, pointing out the outstanding features of the material and of exceptional performances, etc. However people get there, it seems the problem with getting more interest is approachability. The appearance of snobbery (even if that is not the intent) does nothing to improve approachability.

  3. Lankin 20 July 2011 at 9:57 am #

    I started to read this article, determined to disagree — but I cannot find a flaw. Why talent shows are such a success is quite simple: They are selling the illusion that work is not required, only talent. Everybody can dream themselves up there, imagining it just takes a bit of luck, and they’ll end up famous.
    Jenkins — which I heard for the first time just now is of course, well… My eyes water and I mutter a faint “Rinat, where are you…”.
    But: At least the lady seems of age. What I find totally disgusting are children who are put on stage to sing the Habanera and In Trutina. There’s a mismatch between the obvious erotic message of the aria and the age of the singer then that personally squicks me.
    Paul Potts: Nice voice, but of course he wouldn’t survive or be able to sing the role on stage. People like it because of the emotion of the moment transported there. Pott’s moment — not Kalaf’s.
    I can’t say I don’t like crossover no matter what — I’m by no means a Puritan. There is a “Jesus, joy of Man’s desiring” sung by Sissel Kyrkjebø I really like, e.g.

    Pop music is full of snippets and samples of classical music. I have no problem with that, but I don’t like to listen to mediocre singing.
    A good thing about Paul Potts: I got three people hooked on Mario del Monaco via him. “Oh you like ‘Nessun dorma?’ Listen to this.”
    Another good example of — well it wasn’t really a crossover — was Sting’s Dowland album with the fabulous Edin Karamazov.

  4. George aka OperaCreep 21 July 2011 at 11:32 am #

    Clearly CC fans are a vocal if slightly sad group of people. Their reactions on Amazon forums have been akin to blinded football fans supporting their team. I have not bothered to get involved in that conversation about their precious Jackie or whoever. The main thrust of this blog entry was to make my point that crossover is a ploy of the record companies to get people hooked on substandard classical-light music. A game that they know how to play from their pop divisions. Some may find my argument snooty or that I lack understanding of “the man on the street”…but I’ll just repeat that I am not the product of private tuition and studies in Oxbridge colleges. My background is thoroughly working class (two generations back the family was in farming). This very idea of classical and opera being elitist is a made up argument by the promoters of substandard tripe, like Raymond Gubbay. I never found it difficult to be involved and to learn more about the genre. All it takes is time to listen and enjoy…not that much to ask surely.

    • R. Hamilton 22 July 2011 at 3:45 am #

      Your argument is not snooty because of your background, nor is there anything snooty about liking classical music performed to traditional standards, entirely sans electrical involvement in the production of sound.

      Rather, it’s snooty because you seem to suggest the existence of a hierarchy of validity among matters of taste, with yours somehow entitled to justify excluding others.

      Failure to recognize the advantages of co-existence: _that’s_ the very definition of snobbery, bigotry, you name it.

      Discussion elsewhere suggests oddly enough that “true” classical professionals and CC stars have less difficulty treating one another respectfully than their fans do – an unfortunate situation for all concerned, I’d think.

      • George aka OperaCreep 23 July 2011 at 2:57 pm #

        I do not think I have made a distinction based on some hierarchical notion. My only distinction is how well the written music is performed, if arias have to be transposed to be performance material then I am not at all interested. Crossover is really not necessary because most of it is artless fluff. It’s a bizarre amalgamation of pop and classical that doesn’t do favours to either.

        On this note I am closing the comments on this blog entry as they have run their course and some of them are turning out to be longer than the original post…which is silly.

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