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Operatic Overload
by Gregg Shapiro
2004-04-21

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** Sissel at Park West, (773) 929-5959, on April 25

The suits at Universal Records and affiliated labels have been trying to shove classical crossover music down the throats of the American music buying public for years. It can be traced back to the mid-'90s, shortly after Universal hatched its plot to take over the music industry, and the marketing of opera singer Andrea Bocelli. Before that, it seemed that the general pop music consuming public considered opera singers, such as Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, as being just short of novelties.

Since then, highly visible mainstream operatic vocalists such as Sarah Brightman, Charlotte Church and Josh Groban have expanded the contemporary opera audience, but it's hard to imagine Middle America abandoning Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake or Missy Elliott for more classical pursuits. In the same way that the other Euro-oriented music (Does anybody remember Eiffel 65? What about Alice Deejay?) which Universal (and associates) were attempting to force feed us at the end of the '90s was somewhat rejected, the latest crop of classical crossover confections isn't any easier to digest. Additionally, gay men, who have long been quintessential opera queens, and have been weaned on Maria Callas and Renee Fleming, probably find all of this a bit suspect.

Reminiscent of Sarah Brightman, Sissel even traverses some of the same territory on her album My Heart (Decca). Like Brightman, Sissel performs Handel's 'Lascia Ch'io Pianga,' Webber's 'Pie Jesu,' Puccini's 'O Mio Babbino Caro,' and Schubert's 'Ave Maria,' to mention a few. She even covers Groban's ground with her rendition of 'You Raise Me Up.' One nice touch is her wordless interpretation of soundtrack king Ennio Morricone's stunning 'Deborah's Theme,' from the movie Once Upon A Time In America. Sissel, who spent the early part of her career as a 'new age' vocalist, sounds like she is readily embracing her classical self. The question is whether listeners will do the same.

Sort of a cross between Sissel and Brightman, Emma Shaplin takes it all a step further by composing her own contemporary opera-style songs on Etterna (Ark 21). The first couple of the dozen songs are sung in Shapplin's soprano register, and that was more than enough for me.

The Universal records family doesn't have a monopoly on this kind of music or marketing. The Opera Band (Victor/Arista Associated Labels) by Amici Forever, comes from the land of BMG. Through interpretations of songs based on compositions by Handel ('Prayer In The Night'), Faure ('Whisper of Angels'), as well as actual pieces by Puccini ('Nessun Dorma'), and Mozart ('Soave Sia Il Vento'), to name a few, as well as 'Senza Catene,' an Italian reading of 'Unchained Melody,' this mixed-gender group attempts to broaden our horizons. The end result is that the album is almost as admirable as it is laughable.

Izzy (Manhattan), the self-titled domestic debut by Izzy (born Isobel Cooper), combines the tracks from her two European releases. As with the aforementioned Sissel (and Brightman), there are composers in common, including Handel ('Lascia Ch'io Pianga'), Puccini, Mozart, Bizet and Faure. Izzy also diverges a bit with renditions of traditional tunes such as 'Steal Away,' 'My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose,' and 'What Child Is This (Greensleeves).' To further distinguish herself, Izzy performs a duet with 'singing policeman' Daniel Rodriguez (who gained fame in the wake of 9/11) on 'The Prayer.'

Houston-born Laura Turner applies her classically trained operatic vocals to a collection of new songs on Soul Deep (Curb). Sounding as if she took inspiration from Brightman, the songs and arrangement are more than a little reminiscent of the British diva's recent releases with rhythmic beats providing the platform from which Turner's vocals are launched. This is never more obvious than on the title track and the Middle Eastern-influenced 'Illusion Of A Kiss.'

In the more than 20 years since the death of Klaus Nomi, the closest the modern rock world has come to having an opera-quality singer is probably Lisa Gerrard, formerly of Dead Can Dance. In addition to composing acclaimed movie scores, such as the ones for The Insider and Whalerider, Gerrard has released three 'solo' albums, the latest of which is Immortal Memory (4AD). Gerrard's distinctive and rich contralto vocals envelop the 10 songs on which she collaborated with composer Patrick Cassidy. Singing in Aramaic, Latin and Gaelic, Gerrard embodies the kind of passion for which Mel Gibson can only mutter unanswered prayers.


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