Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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Classical Crossover vs. Opera

Jackie EvanchoMany genres in the music industry are marginalised, ignored and are incorrectly represented in the media. What genres these are depends where you live in the world. However, it is safe to say that, no matter where you are located on the globe, classical crossover suffers in some form. Its presence in South America can be likened to light sabres in a Western movie, whilst a market in Australia is there ready to be taken but the industry continues to ignore it in favour of pop and R'n'B. America has been known to like classical crossover music, but they are only aware of individual artists; not the genre. Even in the UK, the classical crossover capital of the world, the mainstream media are, frustratingly, still branding Hayley Westenra and Russell Watson as opera singers.

Why is genre important? As a casual fan, you may wonder. You either like the sound of the music, or you don't, right? Who gives two hoots what it's labelled as? But you're holding that Josh Groban CD in your hands because of the classical crossover genre, and how it has developed. The music industry is dictated, and run, by categories and labels. Radio channels, TV music channels, your local record store, iTunes and record labels are all structured by genre. It would fall apart without it. Like it or not, different genres appeal to certain groups of people. Knowing which group of people goes with which genre makes it possible to market and sell albums, making the industry money, so they can provide more artists of that genre to the market that demands it. You do not need an IQ of 200 to realise that marketing a certain sound to the wrong type of people would not translate well into sales.

With that in mind, it has been over a decade since the classical crossover genre really became popular. Its sudden boom after Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli's 'Time To Say Goodbye', the arrival of Vanessa-Mae, Charlotte Church, Bond and Russell Watson began with understandable teething problems from the elites, as the not-so-opera/classical artists started flooding the classical charts and official classical awards ceremonies. Opera singer Sir Thomas Allen said in 2002 of Bond: "The idea of a wet T-shirted quartet where once was the Amadeus has me reaching for the sea-sick pills, or even just retching." Director of Sony Classical, Chris Black, wasn't any more generous: "This is a manufactured band, a sort of Spice Girls playing electronic music."

There was much grumbling and discussion about what makes classical music truly classical. In 2001, it was agreed that Bond was not classical music, and was booted from the charts. You would think, after that's been established, the classical purists can be happy with their classical, whilst artists popifying classical music could do their own thing. But no; the confusion continues to this day.

Most articles I have read from opera and classical purists have come across as arrogant, and well... snobby, when it comes to classical crossover artists, but this is because of the misguided premise of their arguments. Most assume that classical crossover artists actually believe that they are true opera singers, or classical artists. This assumption can understandably make them angry because nearly all classical crossover vocalists have never stood on an opera stage; and let me make this clear: if an artist has not performed in an opera, that artist is not an opera singer.

Camilla KerslakeBut the purists' assumptions are incorrect. Classical crossover artists know what they are. Time and time again, the crossover artists are attacked for simply existing; because the general public are led to believe that the "popular" classical singer, such as Katherine Jenkins, is what classical music is, and what it offers. True classical artists and opera singers can easily take offense at this. They have worked hard and have dedicated their whole lives to their discipline, get little recognition and possess far more technical ability than crossover artists have. Camilla Kerslake is one of the few artists that attempt to make a distinction:

"Opera singers train for years. And then they'll do an opera course; I guess because they'll have trained for 12 years they would get a bit ticked off if someone like me - who has barely trained at all - gets the same name. I go out of my way to never call myself an opera star. I'm a classical singer - I'm in the process of training." [BBC News]

Unfortunately, purists are picking fights with the wrong people. Ask any classical crossover singer if they are an opera singer, and they will tell you they are not. It is the mainstream media that cannot separate the two, even when they are told. It is so much easier to write "opera singer". Whether it's laziness or ignorance, I do not know, but it is damaging both genres of music, as the audience for one is not the same audience as the other, so both lose.

Jackie Evancho, as an example, has just achieved roaring success, reaching second place on America's Got Talent, but despite her and her parents, Lisa and Mike Evancho, insisting that their daughter be described as a classical crossover singer (of which many articles put the term in inverted commas as if it's some alien thing) it is ignored, because the journalists do not understand it, and in turn, the American public do not understand it, and once again, many a purist have taken up their pens to criticise Evancho and her "opera singing".

We implore purists to appreciate, and accept, that classical crossover artists are not trying to "replace" classical, they are not "pretending" to be classical, but are practising a genre within its own right. They are using the classical voice in a different way and applying it to different modes of music. Instrumentalists are taking up their instruments, often associated with classical music, and are using them for different sounds. Classical music does not own the violin; it does not own the voice. These musical sounds can be used by any genre of music, and in any way that it makes music that people enjoy.

If you wish to complain about classical crossover artists taking over the classical world, take your complaints to where they belong: the mainstream media. If both genres are represented correctly, and not as one, you may find there isn't much for you to complain about at all.


#3 Sebastian Anders 2013-07-16 09:22
Excellent commentary and much appreciated in a world of musical confusion. It also explains why an artist like Jackie Evancho, for all of her popularity on the world concert scene, is never heard on the radio music charts, that I know of. Were it not for her albums and these websites and Facebook, we would be deprived of not only her voice but of the wondrous person that she is and hopefully will be for a very long time to come.
#2 Krista-la 2013-02-27 05:07
Thank you for explaining this so beautifully and accurately. I am a classical music student, striving to pass on what I've learned in various ways, whether it be in a choral classroom or my true dream of becoming a classical crossover recording artist. The two are separate, two branches of music that are related and have similarities, but also many differences. I love both immensely and do not understand the unnecessary criticism on either side.
#1 Sofia A. David 2012-11-30 03:00
I came upon your webpage in my search for balanced :-? articles about pop opera. Although you discuss Classical Crossover mainly, I'd say that your examples are also the same ones mentioned when pop opera is discussed. I'm well aware that the music business industry (with an emphasis on business) is also one of the the driving forces behind the relative 'fame' of a CC or pop opera artist/s. Would you consider writing an article about it?

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