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

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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?