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.
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.