The Crossover Question

MATTHEW GUREWITSCH navigates the shifting boundaries between the worlds of classical music and pop.

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Andrea Bocelli
Courtesy of Universal Music
"The truth is that no such boundary exists; there is rather a vast and various free-trade zone where living musicians navigate at will."
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Josh Groban
Olaf Heine/Warner Bros. Records,
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Ameling's crossover: nobody complained
Crossover: the salvation of the classical recording business, or the end of civilization as we know it?

If only the phenomenon were less amorphous. The term arises wherever musicians fail to honor the strict boundary between classical music and more informal varieties of musical entertainment. The truth is that no such boundary exists; there is rather a vast and various free-trade zone where living musicians navigate at will. What with pop singers who want in and opera singers who want out, for the sake of adventure or in quest of sheer gain, the traffic in waters operatic is especially intense.

Here is an instance of the crossover phenomenon of which no one I know of has complained. In 1982, soprano Elly Ameling, better known for her interpretations of Bach and Schubert, put out an LP called After Hours. Accompanied by the jazz pianist Louis van Dijk, she ran a delightful gamut from "Body and Soul" to "I Got Rhythm" by way of "Embraceable You" and "Autumn in New York." (Virtually unobtainable today, this was not Ameling's only effort in this line. Another album, Sentimental Me, is even harder to find.)

Perhaps Ameling may have dropped a pop standard or two into her classical recitals from time to time; I don't know. But she could bring down the house with Satie's "La Diva de l'Empire," which is a pop song in all but name. While we're on the subject, how do you classify Arnold Schönberg's "Brettl-Lieder"? Pop songs for a classical singer? A reverse conundrum: the Streisand album Classical Barbra, featuring Orff's "In trutina," from Carmina Burana; Schumann's "Mondnacht," throbbing softly; and Handel's prayer of thanksgiving "Dank sei dir, Herr," belted out Merman-style. And consider the fate of Calàf's "Nessun dorma." Since Pavarotti's appearance at the 1990 World Cup, the aria has been fair game for anyone. Have you heard Aretha Franklin's bilingual gospel take? Through "e di speranza," she sings Italian, revving her r's like a charging Vespa. Then comes the shift to irresistibly romantic inglese: "Within my heart my secret lies, and what his name is none shall know.…"

Most of us resist stuff we think is pretentious. But what mostly ruffles feathers is less the occasional interdisciplinary foray as such than crass mercenary intent. For many who grew up loving opera, crossover is synonymous with selling out, and they utter the word with a shudder of revulsion. But seriously, whether a classically trained artist reaches out to a mass audience (Plácido Domingo joining forces with John Denver for "Perhaps Love") or, conversely, a popular artist takes a page from the classics (the Queen of the Night's vengeance aria to a bouncy backbeat, Norma's "Casta Diva" swimming in Mantovani syrup), where's the harm?

According to at least one Cassandra, we are on a very slippery slope. The proof? The classical discography of Andrea Bocelli. A Bohème conducted by Zubin Mehta, with Barbara Frittoli as Mimì, might not be the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of crossover, but in point of fact, Universal Classics promoted it as such rather than through the company's classical department. When the Bocelli Bohème appeared, Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic for The New York Times, contended that newcomers to Puccini's opera would be better served by a touchstone mid-twentieth-century recording of his choice than by the superfluous new one.

Okay, okay. It is fair to argue that Bocelli suffers by comparison even with journeyman tenors of bygone generations. But then, so do plenty of other contemporary tenors who rank higher with the critical establishment. And in any case, what Bocelli fans want is Bocelli. Who knows? He might whet their appetite for Puccini generally, at which point they might start discovering superior alternatives on their own. It's not impossible. In this same credulous vein, apologists for the Three Tenors used to say that their pops extravaganzas would bring new audiences to the opera house in droves. (In their dreams.)

Large as Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti loomed in the world of opera, their sales never skyrocketed until they got packaged for the arena. By contrast, Bocelli, who rose to the stratosphere in San Remo, always longed for opera. Now that pop stardom has given him the liberty to branch out as he pleases, he makes it a point of honor to sing Massenet and Puccini and Verdi - within his capacities - unamplified, with the original orchestrations, come scritto. Lately, a Tosca for the MTV crowd began making the rounds of arenas in Italy under the title Disperato Amore, raising purist hackles. Bocelli, no stranger to those stadiums, has been singing Tosca, too - at this past summer's Festival Pucciniano at the sanctuary of Torre del Lago.

To return to recordings, after the Bocelli Bohème came a Bocelli Tosca (again paced by Mehta, with Fiorenza Cedolins) and a Verdi Requiem (under Valery Gergiev, with Renée Fleming, Olga Borodina and Ildebrando d'Arcangelo). This spring, a sorry Trovatore (under Steven Mercurio, with Veronica Villarroel; see review on page 71) joined the list. According to persistent rumor, there's a lot more in the can where those came from. Assuming Bocelli's more populist discs keep selling, the operas will no doubt continue to trickle forth in due course, to a continuing chorus of disapproval from the custodians of cap-C Culture and cap-O Opera. On the evidence already at hand, it seems clear that Bocelli's albums are not for the ages. (Make of this what you will, but when I last checked, twenty-eight copies of Bocelli's Bohème were on offer from third parties at prices from $8.99, whereas only sixteen copies were advertised of Herbert von Karajan's classic account starring Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni, the cheapest at an impressive $25. The comparable figures for the original Three Tenors CD - the real tinsel! - were eighty-three copies, starting at $1.50.)

Crossover, however defined, has been with us at least since the dawn of recorded sound. The voice that first sold Victrolas, by the thousands, was that of Enrico Caruso, heard not only in arias, some at the time still quite new, but also in songs of sentiment from his native Naples. With the release of The Great Caruso, in 1951, Hollywood immortalized him for a later generation in the romantic guise of the former piano-mover and GI Mario Lanza, of Philadelphia. A crossover hero par excellence, Lanza broke out in the 1940s with wartime radio broadcasts and subsequent appearances at such venues as the Hollywood Bowl. His sound was brawny, and he recorded well. His operatic potential, much debated, was put to the test only twice, with The Merry Wives of Windsor at Tanglewood and Madama Butterfly in New Orleans.

Caruso and Lanza were not alone in straddling the fence. The beloved Irish tenor John McCormack ranged freely from "Il mio tesoro" to "Danny Boy." After Gluck and Schubert and Schumann, Marian Anderson would regale her audiences with spirituals. Newly retired from opera, that peerless bass Ezio Pinza conquered Broadway in South Pacific. None of these artists was ashamed to show the common touch, any more than Bryn Terfel is today. Of course, there were those who thought they should have been. The redoubtable Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Met from 1950 to 1972, fired his renowned Valkyrie and Isolde Helen Traubel for moonlighting in a nightclub. (At least, so we have always been told. Traubel's posthumous partisans have recently been promising to set the record straight.)

"I hate 'classical music': not the thing but the name." Thus Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, last winter set forth on his confession "Listen to This," in which, as the subtitle put it, "a classical kid learns to love pop - and wonders why he has to make a choice." I resist the temptation to quote Ross's scintillating preamble at length, crossover not being his theme. His rejection of labels, nevertheless, is on point. When crossover offends the nose, as it so often does, the rot lies not in a name but in a thing.

The soprano of Charlotte Church has been packaged from her early adolescence as "the voice of an angel." Egregious? Sure. But the real horror is the tinny timbre and faceless phrasing, the blandness of the material and the saccharine arrangements. By comparison, British tenor Russell Watson (a.k.a. "The Voice") strikes me merely as a joke. True, his repertoire consists largely of opera chestnuts, flung to the skies with heart-on-sleeve abandon. But the oceanic symphonic overlays, scaled to the gargantuan venues in which he appears, convert real arias into the sort of generic schlock cranked out fresh for such vocalists as Céline Dion and Josh Groban, whom Rosie O'Donnell once introduced to her television audience as "opera boy." Apparently, O'Donnell is unaware that the genre Groban cultivates depends - as opera through the ages never did - on the microphone to create (read: fake) the contradictory qualities of intimacy and power that are otherwise unattainable in a stadium. Maybe what makes Groban's material sound operatic to listeners like this one is simply the intensity, the wrenching appeal to emotion. But in real opera, the spikes of feeling arise from a dramatic journey, whereas here they float free: charged, yes, but unmotivated - effects without causes.

As Cole Porter once declared in a lyric for Can-Can, "You like bouillabaisse, I do not./ So what, so what, so what?" (In an alternative refrain, the subject of contention is Offenbach.) The title of the song (and its refrain) is "Live and Let Live." Where taste alone is at issue, that remains excellent advice. Crossover provides fuel aplenty for heated argument, but there are no moral stakes here, no good and bad, and certainly no good and evil. To pick a case at random, American musicals performed by American opera singers almost invariably strike me as phony to the point of the grotesque. No more so, however, than the Polish cult contralto Ewa Podles´ on her home turf of straight Rossini or Verdi. So what, so what, so what?

Those who wring their hands over Bocelli's invasion of the opera house might wish to ponder this testimonial from the sovrintendente of one of Italy's principal opera houses, speaking on the understandable condition of anonymity: "After what the critics did to him when he sang Werther in Bologna, no one dares to hire him again. But why not? He takes the music seriously. He has discipline. He sings the words so that you understand them, and with feeling. He sings in tune. Of how many other current tenors can these things be said? The voice is not as small as people say it is, and he accepts half the fee the other tenors demand. Why shouldn't we hire him?"

At the other end of the spectrum, everyone (except John Rockwell, of the Times, on one bizarre occasion) waxes righteous about the live Saturday-afternoon broadcasts from the Met, the point of entry for countless thousands of opera devotees and the inspiration for American opera singers by the score. Well, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the lustrous Didon of the new Troyens that opened in February 2003, did not hesitate to tell The New Yorker that those very broadcasts just about turned her off opera for good: trained as an instrumentalist, she could not bear all the vibrato. Luckily, colleagues such as Peter Sellars, William Christie and Stephen Wadsworth eventually brought her around. The repercussions of the music that surrounds us - crossover as well as the accepted good stuff - are impossible to foresee.

Does crossover pollute our musical environment? There is simply no way to tell. To listen or not to listen? Draw your line in the shifting sands.

MATTHEW GUREWITSCH is critic at large for Bloomberg News. He has written extensively about the arts for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and other publications.

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