I’ve often discussed with other singers the proper response when someone at church, or anywhere else for that matter, rushes up to me after I’ve sung a solo to tell me how much my singing reminds them of Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli or any other “Pop Classical” artist they can name. (By the way, the correct response is ALWAYS “thank you”.) It’s not their fault. How can I hope for comparisons to Franco Corelli or Carlo Bergonzi if my audience has never heard of them? 100 years ago, Enrico Caruso was considered both the best and the most popular singer in the world. At the end the 1980’s and into the 90’s, Pavarotti was a household name, even to those who knew nothing of classical music. But check out this list of the highest classical music sellers on iTunes for 2016 thus far, and the landscape is quite different. What changed? There’s a lot to chew on here, so I’ll try to stay focused and avoid getting too far off on tangents.
- The Three Tenors Problem
After Jose Carreras recovered from leukemia, his colleagues Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo (along with some very savvy producers) decided to celebrate with a highly-publicized outdoor concert in Rome in 1990. The concert featured the three legendary tenors singing opera arias, Neapolitan songs and a flourish of more popular fare (“Memories” from Cats, “La Vie en Rose”, etc.) backed by an absurdly large orchestra led by conductor Zubin Mehta. The audio recording of the concert went on to be the biggest-selling (mostly) classical album ever up to that time. The PBS video broadcast had a huge impact as well and so the concert, album and TV-broadcast were recreated. Two more times. While there were much lesser things that 90’s classical audiences could have been obsessed with, the Three Tenors concerts painted a very narrow picture of opera while the producers proudly claimed to be bringing new converts to the art form in droves. The actual operatic repertoire of all three concerts was limited to the same crop of light arias from composers such as Puccini and even the barely-tolerable Meyerbeer, with most of the arias traded to the next guy for the following go-round. Naturally, every concert was capped off with Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot, twice by Pavarotti and once with all three men together. I adore Puccini, but some Verdi, Massenet or Mozart would have been quite welcome in the mix. It was immediately obvious that the concerts were designed to be fun, and there’s not a thing wrong with that. The problem was the prevailing notion that we had broadened our musical horizons by purchasing the albums, while the second and third concerts really only served to chronicle the deterioration of three rapidly aging voices. Nevertheless, the classical and pop elements were equally easy to digest, which traces back to the fact that…
- Puccini and Caruso Set Modern Composers up for Failure (or Success)
If you pay attention, you may notice that as Puccini’s career as composer developed, his arias, particularly those for tenor, started to take on a uniform length. That’s not a coincidence. By the time Puccini had made it as the world’s foremost opera composer of his day, it became understood that his tenor roles would be premiered, and even written specifically for, the most prominent opera singer alive at the time. Enrico Caruso possessed an unusual, but captivating voice. He was arguably a true baritone, given away by his exceptionally dark timbre and relatively limited upper range. (His “high C” was typically a falsetto/full voice hybrid of sorts.) The darkness of his voice lent itself beautifully to the newly emerging industry of recorded sound. Where other tenor voices sounded tinny and thin when transferred to records, Caruso sounded warm and commanding. The producers of those early records realized that the ideal arias for recording would last about three minutes; one aria per side. Edits to the orchestral scores were made to accommodate those time constraints and Caruso became a prolific recording artist. Puccini was wise enough to realize that if he wrote his tenor arias to last just the right length, no edits would be necessary and the appeal for Caruso to record them would be irresistible. The 3:00 duration of early 78’s dictated what would be the standard length for most popular songs to this day. What it did to classical music was devastating. While Puccini’s strategy was public knowledge and an obvious stroke of brilliantly mixing business with legitimate artwork, surprisingly few classical composers have paid it any heed. In fact, many modern operas are through-composed and the text is set to music more conversationally. For easy proof, look at the output of the Barber/Menotti operas of 60-ish years ago. The narrative of the dialogue is more compelling than the melodicism of the lines. This is a commercial, as opposed to artistic criticism. The cherry-picking of opera’s “Greatest Hits” was reinforced in the 50’s and 60’s to yet a greater degree with the popularity of Italian-American Mario Lanza, who ironically rose to fame for portraying Enrico Caruso on screen. Lanza greatly helped to establish the concept of the opera singer who never appears in an opera production.
- Movies and Television Have Skewed Our View of Classical Music
While I’m guilty of many a tirade towards Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle”, with its absurd notion that orchestras are populated by reckless artists that favor a sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, inaccurate Hollywood depictions of classical musicians have been a mainstay for the better chunk of a century. All the way back in 1939, the great Jascha Heifetz played himself in the film “They Shall Have Music”. In the film, Heifetz becomes convinced to play at a free concert to support a school for the boys who stole his near-priceless violin. In relatively modern times, our culture has been infiltrated by the idea that Mozart was a hilarious ne’er do well with a penchant for pink wigs. Mozart may very well have been a funny guy and was indeed known for overspending his money in pursuit of the lifestyle to which he’d grown accustomed, but make no mistake, “Amadeus” is a great movie because it is great entertainment (soundtrack included!), not because of any historical grounding of its subject matter. Of course, there’s “Mr. Holland’s Opus”, a movie about a band director who instantly transforms a teenager who can barely play the clarinet into Benny Goodman by telling her to “Play a sunset!” (Gasp! Mind blown!!!) The non-musical media shows classical music to us as simple, often silly and something that can be expertly performed by anyone with enough of a free spirit to bring us to tears. Never is there a glimpse of the endless hours in the practice room, the frustration of losing an orchestra spot to a lesser player who sounds like the principal chair. Because pop stars and classical musicians are shown in the same light, we’ve been taught to believe the process toward success is identical. Pop Classical exists partly because it looks and sounds the way we’ve come to expect: smiles and good looks, arenas instead of concert halls and sounds (particularly from vocalists) which are just ever-so-slightly better than the girl who won your local VFW’s karaoke night. It’s widely accessible for the same reason your redneck uncle looks at an Andy Warhol picture of soup cans and says, “I could do that!” The difference is that you uncle will never grasp the actual meaning of that picture, whereas the best singer from your high school really could be the next Katherine Jenkins if she has the looks for it. If there’s any substance beneath the surface, it takes no effort to comprehend.
- The Decline of Music Education (And the Obvious Solution)
If our audiences are coming to concerts or turning on the radio with no depth of musical background, we shouldn’t be surprised if they collectively think André Rieu is the pinnacle of classical music and believe Yo Yo Ma is a character on Sesame Street. Anytime we cut music education out of public schools we ensure that opera is how the masses describe their Josh Groban Spotify playlists, instead of the music of Verdi, Puccinni, and Massenet. If you live someplace where the school district is about threatening to cut the music program, throw a fit! Send angry emails, make phone calls, organize a protest and run for the school board if you have to. If it’s too late for any of that, enroll your kid (or yourself) in some private lessons, be it for voice or an instrument. You won’t be sorry.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with mixing popular music with classical music, but if we wholly replace the vast depths of great music that exist with whatever we’ve been manipulated to accept as good enough, we’ve truly lost something priceless.