- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 18, 2003

It's hardly news that the classical music recording biz is seriously down in the dumps. Sales of records, tapes and eventually CDs were already swooning in the late 1980s, and the death spiral accelerated in the 1990s.

Not long after Leonard Slatkin took over the National Symphony Orchestra, visitors to his office were surprised to see his life-size statue of the famous RCA mascot sitting in a corner and facing the wall like a kid in a dunce cap. "Nipper's in the doghouse," the maestro said. "I'm not quite sure how long he's going to stay there." RCA had just terminated the NSO's recording contract. Throughout the late 1990s, more orchestras suffered the same indignity.

Classical music recordings were not selling like pop and were turning off the coveted younger demographic. The bottom-line-fixated conglomerates that owned the record labels cut their classical lines, choosing instead to recycle decades-old recordings for which they no longer had to pay royalties. In truth, classical orchestras, opera companies and soloists often were their own worst enemies. With 10 to 20 available releases of Beethoven's nine symphonies and half a dozen Ring Cycles in the bins, ensembles insisted upon recording them all again rather than developing a modern repertoire that might sell a little better to a younger generation of listeners. With few new works to market and with an ever-declining customer base, classical recording sales imploded like the Capital Centre last month in Landover.

Still, marketing execs aren't fools. The Three Tenors proved that classical will sell big-time to a crossover audience. The tenors' light touch and a pop-oriented marketing approach made classical music, mixed with some old pop, seem hip even sung by three aging opera idols. Now let's see, the admen thought. If we could just get some young performers with half-decent voices to sing some of this classical stuff hunky guys or, better yet, girls with nice figures and great cleavage we could market them as …


OPERABABES

Beyond Imagination

(Sony Classical)

Yep, OperaBabes. In what could be the second British music invasion, OperaBabes are in a Tower record store near you with their debut album, "Beyond Imagination," which pretty well describes this CD.

Like other rising classical crossover artists, including Andrea Bocelli, the Babes (mezzo-soprano Karen England, 28, and soprano Rebecca Knight, 32) have had little if any conservatory-based training. They were scrounging by as street singers ("buskers") in London, earning money to pay for extra singing lessons, when they attracted the attention of a talent scout who booked them to sing at a European football match in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. They were a smash hit with the lads and have been touring ever since, signing a six-figure recording contract with Sony Classical, which has just put out their first offering.

The results? Well, the Babes certainly are what the breathless tabloids would call "hotties." Sultry bottle-blondes, they're featured in various provocative outfits tastefully draped throughout the album's liner notes/libretto. So, for starters, the sex-appeal quotient for young guys and old codgers is right up there.

The singing and arrangements? Not bad, actually. Clearly, the Babes have not developed the lungs of a veteran Metropolitan Opera diva. Nevertheless, their voices are bright and crystalline (touched up, we suspect, with a little electronic sweetening), their enunciation is impeccable, and their choice of arrangements clearly inspired by Mannheim Steamroller is eclectic and imaginative though not traditional.

This is clear from the first track, in which the Babes sing "Un bel di" ("One Fine Day"), from Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," as a duet accompanied by an astonishingly effective battery of Japanese drums. You get the impression that Puccini himself might have scored these things if he could have gotten away with it.

Equally effective are other cuts, including a lovely adaptation for voice of the lyric second movement from Grieg's Piano Concerto, a lush rendition of "Stranger in Paradise" from the musical "Kismet" (itself stolen from Borodin's "Prince Igor") and two funky versions of the Flower Duet from Delibes' compellingly weird "Lakme."

Gen Xers will enjoy this album as a welcome break from all the head-banging music in which they indulge. Traditionalists also will be strangely charmed if they can stop ogling the liner notes for a moment and listen. These Babes could really go someplace.


JOSH GROBAN

Josh Groban in Concert

(Warner Bros.)

More established on the classical/crossover circuit is twentysomething heartthrob baritone Josh Groban. Boosted by appearances on the now-defunct "Allie McBeal" and "Rosie" shows, the boyishly handsome Mr. Groban follows in the footsteps of Mr. Bocelli and the Three Tenors, blending classical and pop melodies into one easily digestible product. Unlike the Babes, Mr. Groban goes a little heavier on the soft pop in his latest release, "Josh Groban in Concert," a combo release with an accompanying DVD of a Pasadena concert given by Mr. Groban in October 2002.

Like the Babes, Mr. Groban hasn't been to the Peabody Conservatory, and it shows. His baritone is surprisingly rich and bright, but he does not always attack his high notes precisely and has not even begun to develop the lung power needed to sustain the classical repertoire. Perhaps this is why he sings more light pop. Both the Babes and Mr. Groban clearly have potential, but they will need to determine at some point soon in their careers whether they want to stay with crossover/pop or develop a career in the legitimate opera. In the meantime, their albums are quite entertaining, but with a clear edge to the Babes for maturity and originality.


LA BOHEME

ON BROADWAY

Cast Album

(DreamWorks Records)

Speaking of legitimate opera, Baz Luhrmann's revamping of Puccini's beloved opera, now titled "La Boheme on Broadway," is just out on CD in an original cast recording. Mr. Luhrmann, who won fame for his direction of the bizarre hit film "Moulin Rouge," has applied his talents to updating Puccini's masterpiece to New York's beat bohemia of 1957. Populated with fresh young singers, Mr. Luhrmann's retread has been a popular success, although it has occasioned grumbling from purists who don't like modern costumes and touched-up sound. The biggest beef with the Luhrmann version is the same criticism leveled at director Franco Zefirelli's opera productions: They're all about the director's vision, not the music.

Certainly this is true if you're in the auditorium only for the singing. If you regard opera first and foremost as musical theater, however, these complaints ring hollow. Mr. Luhrmann has freshened up this tuneful show and made it into an entertainment that appeals to younger audiences even though it is still sung in Italian and hardly deviates from the composer's original intentions. This album of selections from the Broadway production is not likely to end up in the collections of opera fanatics, but it may migrate to a more than a few media systems owned by Gen Xers. It's bold, youthful, vigorous music, enchantingly presented and conveying real tragedy and emotion.

Classical music, new and old, that's presented in exciting, innovative ways by trendy young artists who reach out to involve their audiences. What a concept. Maybe more of this would be a good thing. It might just be the best way to get poor Nipper out of that doghouse.


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