Caught in the Crossover: OperaBabes and Embracing Guilty Pleasures

Tuesday, June 26, 2012 - 11:00 AM

For the longest time, there used to be an album on my iTunes without cover art, merely titled a seemingly innocuous “Gym Stuff” that I used to hide all of my guilty addictions: Mario Frangoulis, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the OperaBabes.

The latter was a particularly contentious topic with many people back when the Babes were discovered in 2001 while busking in London’s Covent Garden marketplace, earning their moniker from an onlooker to those concerts, and promptly skyrocketing to fame (or at least relative fame in the classical niche) for sultry techno- and pop-infused remixes of works like the Flower Duet from Lakme and Debussy’s Clair de Lune. The label of "crossover" was immediately slapped on them by purists and marketers alike.

Their music was all very new agey, a far cry from the stadium showstoppers of Katherine Jenkins and her kind. But it was still admittedly cheesy, in the same school as Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Radio City Music Hall concert that drove some reviewers away at intermission. You didn’t talk about it, you just enjoyed the illicit thrill of listening to an Olympian remix of Verdi’s Triumphal March from Aida while running at top speed before the treadmill ticked into cool-down mode.

I’m still a junkie for groups like that now, though I’m a little more open and unapologetic about it—if my mom can pick and choose her Prince Igor recordings while still blasting Amici Forever in her car, why should I, or anyone for that matter, care who is going to take a look at the albums sitting in my iTunes library? There is always going to be someone to tell me my taste in music sucks, and life is too short to not indulge in a guilty pleasure every now and then, much in the same way a viewing of "Eurotrip" often takes precedence over a ponderous New Wave film tackling similar themes.

But the funny thing is, the pop opera duo OperaBabes have gone legit with their newest album, out on June 26. "Silent Noon" is an acoustic recital disc, just a soprano (Rebecca Knight), a mezzo (Karen England) and a piano (Janet Haney). Child of the 1980s that I am, I still can’t manage to say the word “babes” with a straight face, but I can listen to this recording and appreciate it for a sophisticated compilation of English-language art songs by the likes of Vaughan Williams, Britten, Purcell and Handel. It’s especially perfect listening for a long, languid summer afternoon, delivered as it is with a balmy breeze and a simple, sensuous touch by all three musicians.

Which begs the question: When does a guilty pleasure stop being a guilty pleasure? Is it because this music is delivered in a “traditional” manner, so I feel weird applying the normative high culture hangups to it? Would I feel the same way if it were delivered in the same karma-infused, Bollywood style as the Intermezzo from Carmen or Bellini’s “Casta Diva,” as was the case on the Babes’s 2006 album "Renaissance?"

To that end, I’ve heard some people bashfully admit that Pavarotti is their favorite opera singer, as if they should favor some tenor from 100 years ago that is only known by an Illuminati-esque circle of devoted insiders. Fame, and the packaging thereof, is a very mercurial thing, and the publicity and style surrounding certain artists—whether they’re niche iconoclasts like the OperaBabes or larger-than-life legends like Pavarotti or Renée Fleming—often overtakes the substance of their art, for better or for worse.

But it all begs the question: Who cares? If you like it, who really cares what other people think of it? I’m actually not entirely sure what the answer to that question is, because the other side of that coin is that what we like, in part, defines who we are, especially in a Facebook age of liking something versus “liking” something. And yet at the end of the day, I can’t stop listening to two former buskers-turned-popera icons croon Britten’s The Salley Gardens.

What are your guilty, or not-so-guilty, pleasures in opera? Name names in the comments below.

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Comments [2]

Les from Miami, Florida

I'm crazy about "Suoni la tromba, e intrepido" from "I Puritani" sung by Rolando Panerai and Sesto Bruscantini from an R.A.I. performance with Lina Pagliughi and Mario Filippeschi and conducted by Fernando Previtali; and also the E.M.I. recording with Panerai again and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, with Callas, di Stefano and Tullio Serafin conducting. Tub-thumping it may be, but had I lived a hundred years ago or earlier, I would have been one of those applauding and shouting "bis"! I also recommend this to anyone in a "blue mood"! Two other "guilty pleasures" are all of "La Gioconda" and all of "Adriana Lecouvreur", if both have first-rate casts and conductors! (Granted, we could argue until the end of our days about who's "first-rate"!) Many critics and scholars both illustrious and others less so have long considered --- and probably still do --- both operas beneath contempt.

Jun. 27 2012 10:47 AM
Robert Poda from New York

I heard this group perform on the ocean liner, Queen Mary 2 as the evening's entertainment a few years ago and thought they were quite good, as I remember - this coming from someone who has gone to the Met for over 50 years and has some high, if not picky standards about such things.

Jun. 26 2012 12:43 PM

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