When Singers Cross Over from Opera to Pop -- and Back!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010 - 12:29 PM

This week on WQXR we are highlighting a CD featuring a young Italian tenor named Vittorio Grigolo. I actually met Vittorio in 2006 when his television program Vittorio: Dreams of Rome was aired on Channel 13 here in New York as a part of the public television series Great Performances. The program featured popular songs in Italian, Spanish and English including Stevie Wonder’s All in Love is Fair and Maria from West Side Story. There were no arias or art songs included.  For Grigolo -- as a classically trained singer -- it was a crossover collection.

As I perused Vittorio’s web site today, I noticed that there is very little mention of his pop recordings now. It seems to me that he is working hard to be perceived primarily as an opera singer these days. 

I was also at Channel 13 when The Three Tenors appeared on the air in their first concert together from the Baths of Caracalla in 1990. Elliott Forest and I were with the tenors for their concert in Giants’ Stadium. There were 57,000 people in the audience that magical night. And, I was in Paris in 1998 when they sang in front of the Eiffel Tower on the Champs de Mars. The Tenors sang standard operatic arias as well as Neapolitan songs and – yes – there was some pop crossover.  And – yes – some people were shocked by these performances – especially the first.

Not too long ago, PBS brought the Caracalla concert with The Three Tenors back to the airwaves. When I saw the rebroadcast, I remember thinking how harmless it was. There they were... three highly accomplished opera singers letting their hair down and having some fun on the eve of the World Cup Final. They were also celebrating Jose Carreras’ return to good health after struggling with leukemia. Was it the most polished singing I had ever seen? No. Did the repertoire suit each one perfectly? No. 

But, they were having a good time... a very good time. And, the result stunned everyone involved with concert – including the tenors!  For the next ten years or so the three gentlemen performed together for loyal audiences all over the world.

I think the biggest challenge in crossover is style. I’ll never forget hearing Bryn Terfel talk about how hard he worked on style when he recorded his Rodgers and Hammerstein album. Bryn is Welsh. But he wanted to sound like the great baritones of the American musical theater. So, he worked with a coach. And, he worked hard. And, the hard work paid off. He was right up there with Alfred Drake and John Raitt. Just fabulous!

So, my question is this: if there is an audience for it, what difference does it make if a classical artist decides to cross over into the world of popular music every once in a while? I’ll grant you that it suits some singers better than others, but I really don’t see the harm in it. And, if a few more people get turned on to classical music along the way, why not?

While you’re posting your comment, I’m going to see if I can put my hands on a copy of Andrea Bocelli’s Sacred Arias CD.  As you know, we don’t ever play Bocelli’s recordings on WQXR. He has made his name as a pop artist. And, I think that’s where his voice shines most uniquely. But, I seem to recall that the Sacred Arias album was quite lovely and suited his voice nicely. I’ll get back to you on what I find out, ok?

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Midge Woolsey

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Comments [20]

Classically Trained Singer from Las Vegas

Much obliged to you for your post!Bunches of magnificent data including, yet Classical strategy is significantly less convoluted than other singing technique.To take in this system, a couple of things must happen.These are the standards I was most centered around as a youthful traditional artist, handling tunes from the greats like Puccini, Schubert, Barber, and that's only the tip of the iceberg.

Aug. 16 2016 04:53 AM
Emily Mikulewicz from Weehawken, N.J

Ms Woolsey, you are aiming to be the next Anna Russell. I am still laughing at the Queen of the Night's ire causing her to sing some very high notes. I love it.

Oct. 18 2010 11:13 AM
Michael Meltzer

To put singers in perspective, go "outside the box." Would we ever want to limit the wonderful efforts of Keith Jarrett or James Galway?
Singers are entitled to the same license.

Oct. 17 2010 06:06 PM
Ken Thompson from NYC

I don't mind "cross-over" at all, from either direction, as long as it is done well. Lots of opera stars have displayed legitimate pop chops: Dorothy Kirsten, Eileen Farrell and Kiri Te Kanawa are excellent examples of opera stars who could swing. I enjoy hearing pop entertainers trying on classical music, too. Barbra Streisand and Sting both show that it can be done, tastefully and artistically, without sounding vulgar or ignorant and pretentious. I think Renee Fleming's jazz and rock albums are great. (Her mannerisms in opera have grown bothersome, however-- but that's another issue.)

Oct. 17 2010 12:17 PM
Michael Meltzer

Everytime a famous singer cuts a pop album, a couple of dozen studio musicians get paid too. If it's a big symphony orchestra, so much the better. It sure beats selling Fuller Brushes and Avon Eyeliner.
The rest of us can live with that, as long as WQXR doesn't feel obligated to relentlessly subject us to a crossover stinker.

Oct. 14 2010 10:29 AM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

To my neighbor, Thomas, in Sparta......

Yeah, I guess every classically trained singer feels obligated to cross-over to the dark side from time to time. But I wonder if it's their own desire to do so, or their agents talking them into it, trying to show off their down-to-earth side.

Just like every pop star feels obligated to do a Christmas album (cringe).

Thank God all these singers don't quit their "day jobs".

Oct. 14 2010 08:23 AM
Michael Meltzer

Did I type "Oblibvious?" Please forgibve me!

Oct. 12 2010 03:54 PM
Michael Meltzer

Everyone contributing to this page, including Ms. Woolsey, has demonstrated here and elsewhere that they have a very active and discerning pair of ears. We then all proceed as though that were the issue.
It's not, unfortunately. Most people just don't hear very well, but they still like music to one degree or another. However, they want to be perceived by their neighbors as "hearing very well," whether they do or not, so they acquire the affectation known as "taste."
"Taste" can be acquired without prerequisite ability, like the second Mercedes in the driveway. As long as they like and support whatever is perceived by various gurus as "tasteful," their neighbors will have to think they can hear. Oblibvious to real differences, "taste" then has to have arbitrary limits and boundaries, so the deaf can continue to exhibit taste without their ears becoming suspect.
That is why these discussions will never produce a rational answer. I apologize for not being more democratic.

Oct. 12 2010 03:41 PM
Thomas from Sparta, NJ

In response to my almost neighbor, Mr. Christiano: what you say is certainly true, and there are historic reasons for the evolution of pop singing technique, which I don't have room to elaborate. However, with the right choice of songs, key selection, and accompaniment arrangement, an opera singer can cross over with great success: Dame Kiri Te Kanawa's collaborations with Nelson Riddle and André Previn are two excellent examples. Riddle had her singing at the bottom of her range for the "Blue Skies" recording, and it worked deliciously.

Oct. 12 2010 02:35 PM
John J. Christano from Franklin NJ

Ban Boccelli??? You shock me WQXR!

Wynton Marsalis, so well suited to the jazz/blues genre, is okay because he can play Haydn's E-flat Trumpet Concerto?

How is it then that Gershwin, no great writer of symphonies, is allowed?

How is it then that Scott Joplin's rags are allowed? SImply because they are played by a classically trained musicians?

C'mon guys, lighten up!

Oct. 12 2010 12:44 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

It's funny. A few weeks ago I had Wynton Marsalis in the cab. I didn't "confront" him on his "notoriety." (I didn't acknowledge his famous persona.) In many ways he's similar to Bocelli, crossing over between very different genres (in most people's view). Why not ban him? Ironically after he'd gone I thought of having seen as a child Louis Armstrong perform. The phrase "ambassador of the horn" came to mind, which I think applies to both Marsalis and Armstrong.

Exposing people to a style of music they rarely experience, demonstrating the beauty - perhaps unnoticed, would seem to be a basis for admiration rather than scorn. Scorn made me think of Pharisees. Vicious scorn.

There's absolutely no logical reason to ban Bocelli. If his talents aren't up to some standard, then don't play those pieces. I've read many comments by people who express disdain for Bocelli while at the same time praising some of his work. Why not play only those works?

Recently on WQXR I heard the violin arrangement of Tenderly/Autumn Leaves. Sorry, but if Bocelli has no place here than neither does that. I've also heard modern classical (jumbo shrimp?) pieces that may have crossed over from Q2 .. or maybe an "ambience" station. No place here I say! That is, if you follow the illogic of banning Bocelli. All Bocelli.

And given the logic of scorning opera virtuosi for appearing with commoners I'd say some of the very best ever should be banned. In the video I linked to of Pavarotti there's a point where he does backup vocals. The anti-diva .. or maybe the girl from Ipanema was walking by.

Oh, I don't care for opera anyway. Ban them all for their lack of purity and orthodoxy!

Oct. 12 2010 11:01 AM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

I can't understand why they do this. The classical methods of singing that they learn are never applicable to the "pop" genre. The phrasing and vowel placements in "pop" are never written to take advantage of classical singing techniques and vice versa.

The rolling of the "r", so prevalent in classical singning, sounds ridiculous in "pop". It's obvious the singer is trying to achieve something he was not trained to do.

The last, barely tolerable, example of this that I can remember was Domingo's duet with John Denver, "Perhaps Love". If it wasn't for the beauty of the song itself, I would have run from the room screaming.

Oct. 12 2010 08:15 AM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

What ruined Bocelli for me was catching him with the Muppets singing Jingle Bells. It was pathetic. As for cross-overs, the Neopolitan songs we hear in the concert halls were actually the popular songs of the Neopolitans. Wonderful songs, full of pain and joy. Richard Tucker sang these Neopolitan songs quite well and his pronunciation of the dialect was almost perfect. As for Bocelli, there was a tv show on Italian tv called, Prima della Prima, and it showed opera productions in rehearsal. One of the programs focused on Bocelli practising the staging for "Werther" . Very interesting to see him doing this. He succeeded. His voice is wonderful for Werther but please no jingle bells.

Oct. 09 2010 01:55 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

CROSS-OVER singers include Caruso, Grace Moore, Mario Lanza who started singing at Tanglewood in Nicolais' 'Merry Wives of Windso,' Nelson Eddy, who sang briefly in opera before his film days, Eileen Farrell, Helen Traubel, Lauritz Melchior, Richard Burton, alternating Shakespeare and his 'Camelot' King Arthur, etc, Mario del Monaco, Thomas Hampson, Lawrence Tibbett, John Charles Thomas, John McCormack and Renee Fleming, ALL have alternated between opera and the Broadway musical or pop, crossing-over to general approval. Never has everybody been happy with anything, but the performer knows what he/she feels is best for himself/herself.

Oct. 08 2010 05:36 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

Backstage after one of his many concerts at Carnegie Hall, I inquired of the great pianist Artur Rubinstein, why it was that he did not program more modern selections, considering he certainly had the technical prowess to perform whatever the composition. He replied that he did not feel that he could do justice to music that he did not personally relate to.

Oct. 08 2010 08:25 AM

Silversalty - Thank you for sharing the Pavarotti/Zucchero Va Pensiero performance. For the record, I rather liked it. It's a lovely melody that deserves to be appreciated by millions. I didn't see any harm in it.

Michael - Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. I find that I always learn something from you along the way.

Jack - I faded a bit when I read your comment about the word 'preparatory'. I went to a prep school. In fact, my father was the Headmaster. I feel sure my dad always said 'PREpratory'. I double checked and did find that this is an acceptable pronunciation. It may be the more old fashioned choice, but it's acceptable.

Thank you for keeping us on our toes, gentlemen!


Oct. 08 2010 07:34 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn



Oct. 06 2010 11:55 PM
Michael Meltzer

If an artist can cross over, fine. If they can't, also fine. The combination of training and experience needed for any additional specialty may or may not be too much to ask.
However, that's the atrtist's concern, not ours. I don't see why it's any of our business how a talented person deploys their talent in what, lacking further information, seems to be only one life to live.
If there are gifts to be shared that we don't know about yet, let's have 'em! We'll pay!

Oct. 06 2010 10:29 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

From my view you're describing the Pharisees of the world and their efforts to maintain control on whatever their domain may be. Their orthodoxy. Their views. Their perspectives. Their world.

I'm not a fan of opera, though there are a few pieces I enjoy. I'm reminded of an interview that Pavarotti gave (I think it was on a late night talk show) where he described the ideal opera singer as someone like Ethel Merman. I don't know anything about opera singing but my impression is that may be the case for male singers, since I can't think of any female singers that sound anything like Merman. I think Pavarotti was referring to the flat sound and pure projection that Merman had. Ironically what I find enjoyable about Pavarotti is that his voice wasn't purely flat but had overtones that added both emotion and personality to his singing. Just a touch. Bocelli adds more than a touch and thereby seems too "pop" for WQXR.

I have to laugh. Another opera piece that I enjoy has a large male chorus and sounds like a crowd singing at a British football match. Moving, emotional, and probably in that sense (football match) about as "pop" as can be. Not "Thriller" pop but not one in a million voice operatic style. ("Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.")

I remember the outrage when José Feliciano sang the American national anthem using his personal style. It was beautiful but offended the star spangled Pharisees. In contrast, the person that sang "O Canada" at Canadiens games actually changed the words. The English words! Roger Doucet, a tenor. No outrage. No national scandal. Doucet's words are still being used (as far as I know). It's the nature of the Pharisees and whether or not they can accept differing views of orthodoxy and still consider them as sacred rather than sacrilegious.

I'm surprised you haven't mentioned Renée Fleming, about whose crossover CD you've posted here. Am I to believe that if Ms Fleming's pop venture were to become a big success that her voice would no longer be heard here? I doubt that. Probably the opposite I think. One of the big draws of Pavarotti was his crossover appeal. His ability to go on talk shows and present opera as something not exclusive to one group but to be enjoyed by all.

Ms Fleming separates her styles. Her "voices." Pavarotti's crossover appeal was his personality .. and his very special operatic voice. I wonder though about the basis for WQXR's rejection of Bocelli. That seems more the key to concern about crossover than opera singers using a more natural voice and testing it's mainstream appeal.

WQXR plays a great deal of what I think of as 'monk music.' I don't remember anything like that in the past on the station. Why is this accepted and not Bocelli? It's certainly not opera and though it may be of the classical period I doubt that Bocelli's style was never heard in the past. The Pharisees of WQXR.

Oct. 06 2010 09:43 PM

Compqarisons are odorous, so says Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. Let Vittorio get a suitable body of work out there before we start comparing him to Luciano.

BTW: the entire staff is mispronouncing prepARAtory in reference to upcoming concerts at Don Bosco Prep. It is not prepAtory.

Oct. 06 2010 04:08 PM

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