Article by Robin Stringer

“Charlotte Church?” In an opera?”  The features contorted in a mixture of pain and disbelief.  They belonged to a distinguished conductor of opera well known at home and on the international circuit.  To put it kindly, he was not keen on the idea.  Unfortunately, he must remain nameless because if I were to record his terse assessment of her qualities and potential as a singer, he, myself, Cadogan Opera Holland Park and The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea could find themselves on the receiving end of a libel write (much appreciated.  Ed.).

Not that his opinion is a rarity.  Ask and ask again of musicians working in the word of classical music and the response is similar.  It applies equally to the current king of the classical charts, Russell Watson, otherwise described as “Salford’s answer to Pavarotti”, not to mention Andrea Bocelli, the blind Italian tenor whom he dethroned.  Not that Mr Bocelli, with sales allegedly amounting to some 45 million albums worldwide, is unduly worried.  All of them, of course, depend heavily on the microphone for effect and that hardly qualifies them for any kind of singing role in an opera house.  Or does it?  I know of at least one small opera company in this country, which has seriously considered trying to persuade Miss Church to appear in one of their productions.

The attraction is obvious.  Whereas Miss Church can claim an audience of millions hanging on her every note, however accurately pitched, even the biggest opera companies often struggle to attract just a few thousand to their productions.  So the thought arises, put Charlotte Church or Russell Watson in almost anything and the box office tills will begin to ring as they have never rung before.  It is, of course, more easily said than done.  Even if the company managed to secure Miss Church’s agreement to appear and could afford her, it would also have to secure the agreement of others to work with her.  Not everyone would necessarily be willing.

Hence the uneasy peace that exists between the world of opera and the world of popular singers inhabited by Church, Watson and Bocelli.  The two worlds are very different and make totally different demands on their inhabitants so it is important to differentiate between the two and to define them precisely.  Trouble arises when the differences are smudged.  Russell Watson is regularly described as an opera singer which he patently is not.  He has not been trained for opera and does not sing operas.  Out of 16 tracks on his second chart-topping album, Encore, only three are opera arias, Verdi’s Celeste Aida, and two Puccini arias, Che gelida manina from La Bohème and E lucevan le stelle  from Tosca.  The rest range from the old Italian pop song Volare to duets with Lulu and Lionel Ritchie.

It is a mix that the public plainly loves.  Their response, which has made Church, Watson and Bocelli millionaires several times over, has been astonishing.  Church’s first album, Voice of an Angel, which was made in 1998 when she was 13, shot her to the top of the UK classical charts making her the youngest person ever to achieve such status.  But for all those early ambitions to sing one day at La Scala, Milan, there was only one operatic track on the disc, When At Night I go To Sleep from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.  Her second album, released in 1999, was more operatically skewed with half a dozen popular arias from various operas including O Mio Babbino Caro  from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, The Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust, and Summertime  from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which was made in 2000 comprised Christmas favourites and the fourth, Enchantment, released last year has a few operatic gems but consists mainly of songs from shows like South Pacific and West Side Story.  Do we detect a career change here?  In this her GCSE year, the talk is not of opera or even of musicals but of making her film debut.  Well, there’s a surprise.

If the public response to Church was phenomenal, then its reaction to Russell Watson was beyond belief. One day, the story goes, the good-looking lad from Salford is fitting nuts and bolts on a factory floor and next he is an internationally renowned tenor.  Needless to say, it isn’t quite as simple as that.  Watson served his apprenticeship on the Working Men’s Club circuit and that is quite a testing ground.  Either way the achievement is extraordinary.  His debut album, The Voice, which included tracks from Turandot and Rigoletto, was touted as the fastest selling classical record in UK history outselling every other classical artist on the UK chart combined, including Church and Andrea Bocelli.  His second record, Encore, topped the classical album charts and has sold in excess of 600,000 copies.

Not that there is anything very new about the success of compilation albums of popular songs pulled from all corners of the musical landscape.  The territory has been plundered down the decades not only by performers like David Hughes or Anne Zeigler and Webster Booth but by a stream of great opera singers from Caruso to Pavarotti.  Its music may be categorised as “easy listening” but that does not necessarily mean that it makes for easy singing.  On the contrary, it can be a minefield both for relatively untrained voices singing opera and for opera-trained voices singing pop.  Gershwin or Rogers and Hart may seem an attractive proposition but to perform their songs convincingly is not as easy as Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra make it look.  Maria Ewing discovered just that in a rather embarrassing Proms adventure into the domain in which they reign supreme.

Church and Watson, admired and loved by their myriad fans as they are, have also found that the music critics are hard to please.  The two got a roasting from Times critic Michael Henderson when they dared to sing at last summer’s Picnic with Pavarotti concert in Hyde Park.  He was plainly moved by what he heard.  “In a less credulous age,” he wrote, “untouched by the whims of marketing men and lazy television executives (in other words, when talent alone counted), the only way that Russell Watson, Charlotte Church and Vanessa May would appear on the stage as Pavarotti would be to sweep up after he had gone home.  Carrying the burden of carefully nurtured celebrity, and untouched by any spark of individual talent, this ghastly threesome represented to corporate vision of life in musical form.”

Henderson’s fellow critic, Geoff Brown, was not impressed by Watson even as he sounds on his top-selling Encore album, which is presumably carefully engineered.  “Is this really classical?  Hardly”, suggested Brown. “Can you call it singing?  Well it’s singing, Jim, but not as we know it.  Compared with the tenors he likes to emulate from Mario Lanza to Pavarotti, Watson is far too much the belter.  There’s a hard brute force in the middle range; above and beyond the voice is ugly and pinched.  Subtlety is nowhere – though little is needed when you croon pop doggerel in a pseudo-American drawl or slide down the glutinous back of the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria”.

Not exactly a paean of praise.  So is it any wonder that Watson hits back, displaying a chip or two that would be better concealed and displaying an ignorance of the operatic world that, given his background, is all the more unforgiveable.  “It’s a shame,” he once observed, “that certain elements of the classical world are not prepared to see me as a positive opportunity.  I come from Salford not Eton and that’s something I’m proud of.  I found this voice down in my boots I didn’t think I had and it’s changed everything.  People like me don’t become opera singers.  I’m not typical in many respects.  I’m working-class, my mum worked in Woolworths in Urmston and my Dad had a DIY shop.  I just open my mouth and sing, it overcomes the snobbery.”

He does protest too much, methinks.  The opera world, forever seeking a touch of class in the voice rather than the lineage, is and has always been illuminated by singers from working class backgrounds.  By contrast, Old Etonians are rather thin on the ground.  Pavarotti, Dame Eva Turner, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Willard White, Sir Thomas Allen, Alberto Remedios, Lesley Garrett and others too numerous to mention all came from the kind of territory claimed by Russell Watson as his own.  It is one of life’s more extraordinary ironies that the art form, which is performed by people from all sorts of backgrounds, is still perceived as a preserve of the toffs.

One claim that Watson is shrewd enough not to make is to be a missionary for opera.  “It’s a label that has been attached to me,” he insists.  “There are so many people who haven’t discovered what I consider to be among the finest music in the world, and one of the main reasons is that with classical music – and opera in particular – there is a tag and a label of elitism and snobbery attached to it.  And I think that, as a rule, intimidates the listener.  But I do believe that barriers are beginning to come down.  Going back four and five years ago people would feel intimidated about walking in the classical department of a record shop, where the 6ft tall, middle-aged gentleman with the round-rimmed spectacles stood, going: (in an affected accent) “Yes, can I help you?’ and you would instantaneously feel intimated by the whole scenario.  Should I ask for this composer’s works?  And how do you pronounce it?  Is it ‘Skubbert’ or is it ‘Shoobert’?  What if I get it wrong?  Will he laugh at me?  Will he think I’m silly?  I think that these notions are gradually beginning to change and I think that’s partly due to the introduction of young artists – more approachable artists like, say Charlotte Church or Andrea Bocelli – and even the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, who has broken down a lot of barriers.  So I think essentially my mission isn’t to bring opera to the people, its more that people should bring themselves to classical music through choice.  One of the most common comments that I get from people is ‘Opera?  Oh, I don’t like opera.  ‘Well, what opera don’t you like?’  ‘Uh, I don’t know’.  ‘Well then how do you know you don’t like it?’

There is, undoubtedly, a lot of truth in what he says.  Barriers of ignorance and misunderstanding still remain.  Just how these barriers can be broken down is the preoccupation of many minds in many opera houses.  For them, the notion that ordinary folk will suddenly see the light on hearing Russell Watson rip into Nessun Dorma, undergo a Damascene conversion and start turning up at the Royal Opera House for Schoenberg’s Erwartung must be an appealing one.  But is there any evidence to support such a thesis?  Leading concert agent David Sigall thinks not.

“Millions of people buy Russell Watson records”, says Sigall.  “But it is quite wrong to talk about them bringing people to opera.  They don’t.  If that were the case, the opera houses would be chock-a-block and overflowing – and they are not.  It is amazing how little cross-fertilisation there is.  In the few concerts we present, you look at the audience and you can always sense if there is a new audience and, frankly there isn’t .  Cross-fertilisation is very limited.  They don’t even cross from the Wigmore Hall to the Queen Elizabeth Hall.”

Mighty efforts are being made in many quarters to scale the operatic heights, and make them accessible to wider audiences

Not that Sigall has anything against the Church/Watson explosion.  “One must now be too po-faced about it, “he says.  “It is a phenomenon that comes and goes.  There’s nothing new about it.  People do want to listen to easy classics in very large doses.  The only sad thing about it is that a lot of people who do not encounter opera get it served up under-cooked.  Performers like Russell Watson and Charlotte Church are not opera singers.  These are people who have caught the public imagination by singing great opera tunes like Nessun Dorma which is three minutes out of a three-hour opera.  Russell Watson is very engaging and all that but put him into Rigoletto and he would fall flat on his face”.

Why then do people rush in their millions to jump on the Watson bandwagon when, as Geoff Brown would have it, so much bad musicianship is on display?  He reckons the Decca publicity machine has a lot to answer for.  “It is a powerful magnet for those who want a big sing, without frills, “he says.  “Nothing artsy-fartsy here, the publicity shrieks: here’s an ordinary bloke with spiky hair, to be seen any day in the pubs and on the football terraces.  He’s new, he’s fresh, he can blare out Nessun Dorma; he’s the people’s tenor, at least until the people tire, the grosses fall, and the A and R men manufacture a new one.”

Like David Sigall, Geoff Brown believes Watson and Church to be popular attractions that in themselves are harmless enough.  “In the short term the money they generate helps the classical CD industry to survive, he says.  “But the long-term effect is less benign.  For they waste resources that would be better deployed elsewhere, imaginatively developing tastes and nurturing artists with genuine talent, not the noisy appearance of talent.  The best way to wine audiences for classical music is not, surely, by watering it down and sugaring it up until it becomes classical no longer, but by brightly presenting superlative music in superlative performances. Why entice people with the mediocre?”

There can be no argument with that.  And it is not as if it is not happening.  Mighty efforts are being made in many quarters to scale the operatic heights, and make them accessible to wider audiences.  But obstacles remain.  Alan Sievewright, artistic director of Online Classics and well known for pioneering rare works, suggests the media has a lot to answer for.  “They never stop talking about how expensive it is when, in fact, you can get into the Royal Opera and English National Opera for next to nothing,” he says.  “No one talks to the people who sit in the top of those theatres, the real public.  Instead, they have decided to create a world of us and them.  They are determined to keep those social barriers when they don’t actually exist.  This is the country that Beethoven said understood him.  What happened to that?”

The understanding is still there.  And it lives not merely in the statistics which tell us that the audience for opera in this country is around three million people a year.  Hardly an insignificant number.  It lives among “the real public” at the Opera House, it lives with the canopied audiences at Holland Park, it lives in the “masses” at Raymond Gubbay’s arena productions in the Albert Hall and it lives behind the scaffolded façade of the London Coliseum, home to English National Opera, which happens to be run by an Old Etonian.  However, Nicholas Payne, ENO’s managing director, is anything but elitist, and he even looks benignly on the likes of Watson and Church.

“I always said when Charlotte Church was still a young girl that she should sing Flora in The Turn of the Screw,” he muses.  “It would have sold like hot cakes.  But now it is too late.  The pulling power of singers like her and Watson is tremendous.  If we put Lesley Garrett on in something here, we get a quite different audience.  There are precedents.  So far as I know Mario Lanza never sang a full opera but made his name in concerts and films.  He was not only successful in his own right but inspiring to other singers.  He had a huge influence on Carreras who heard him when he was young.  Who knows whether Watson is having a similar influence?”

“I certainly don’t think you can be disparaging about a guy who brings a lot of pleasure to a lot of people.  What he has not done is to cross into opera.  But if Russell Watson’s promoter wanted him to do a concert on the Coliseum stage, we would welcome him with open arms. It would be harder to integrate him in a non-miked opera.  It would be like putting an athlete on steroids in an otherwise drug-free race. But where the Watson kind of phenomenon is good is that it says, yes, if you’ve got a bit of talent and determination you can do it.”

Maybe that is partly why 3,000 people have sent in tapes to Operatunity, the forthcoming television series designed by ENO in conjunction with Channel 4 to discover untapped talent.  “People can audition and be trained on our Bayliss programme,” he explained.  “What the message is that with determination and work and natural talent you could make a career if you really want to devote a large number years of your life to your training.  However, not many people will want to do that.”

Payne is for anything that widens the cultural landscape, anything that adds to the great democratisation of opera.  So, although he recognises that the Watson fans are not suddenly going to troop off to the Salzburg Festival or Covent Garden, he reckons they might go to Verona – and then who knows? “It is also very pompous,” he adds, “to think that the only way to enjoy opera is by becoming an opera buff.  If you want to casually dip into it, that’s fine.  Puccini, who was very canny commercially, was always said to have written his arias so that they would fit on to a 10in 78 which is why they are so much shorter than Donizetti’s.”

Indeed, opera in general has always been quite capable of bending with the wind of popular demand without damaging its integrity.  The truth is that Church, Watson, Bocelli and their like will always need opera more than opera needs them.