Saturday, July 30, 2005 | I’m cross about crossover.

What is crossover? The term usually means that music of a particular genre has become appealing to listeners who are used to another genre entirely. This is not a new phenomenon. A good example is Mozart’s “Piano Concerto 21.” When used in a popular, romantic movie, it became identified as “Elvira Madigan.” Many who had no interest in Mozart were captivated. And look at the impact of music in the movie “2001.” Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” is now probably better known as “The theme from 2001.” In each case, the music “crossed over” some unidentified boundary.

This kind of crossover does not worry me because it is the original music being performed as it was intended to be performed. There are many similar examples in the classical orchestral literature and also in opera, when arias sung by classically trained singers are heard in film soundtracks.

But when singers who are not opera singers start singing opera arias and are identified by the media as “opera singers,” I get really cross. A person who makes a living singing opera on a stage is a true opera singer. A pop idol singing opera arias, however well – or badly, as is usually the case – is merely a singer of opera arias. When the media refers to such singers as “opera singers,” it lowers standards, expectations and diminishes the achievements of those who have studied and really know what they are doing.

The aria “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot” became the signature tune of Luciano Pavarotti, but was soon taken up by the likes of Russell Watson, Sarah Brightman, Michael Bolton, Aretha Franklin and Andrea Bocelli, to name but a few. Obviously, the versions by the ladies and Michael Bolton were not taken too seriously because of their personal approach to the music, the key changes and the amplified performances. But the media constantly referred to Bocelli and Watson as “opera singers.”

Mr. Watson has never sung an opera on stage in his life, and I can confidently predict that he never will. But Bocelli is a more curious story. He actually has appeared on stage in opera several times, including an appearance as Werther in Detroit. That performance was a disaster as his fans came from all around the world only to hear an inadequate voice, with no projection and rhythm and pitch problems. By the first intermission his supporters were stunned; newspaper reports the following day were devastating. And yet he was constantly referred to as an opera singer.

Let me make very clear that I like the voice of Mr. Bocelli, so those of you who are devoted should not be angered by what I have just said. (I can’t stand Mr. Watson, so that group is allowed to get angry!) But Bocelli is a singer of ballads and songs, not an opera singer. In that field he is merely a singer of opera arias, and not a good one. I can hit a baseball, but that does not make me a professional baseball player any more than Elvis Presley becomes a Neapolitan tenor because he recorded “It’s Now or Never” to the tune of “O Sole Mio.”

We all can enjoy crossover singing, but need to be careful about what standard we apply to the performance. Singing an aria does not make the performer an opera singer. This is not snobbishness, but is a matter of respecting the true artist. Generally speaking, the opera singer has a better voice, sings in tune, uses the correct key, can be heard in a large theatre without amplification and has the capability of performing the whole role, not just three or four minutes of it.

Crossover goes the other way also, with the opera stars performing ballads and popular songs. But that does not make any of them a pop singer, nor do they usually do it particularly well. The record catalogues are full of CDs by Kiri te Kanawa, Thomas Hampson, Renée Fleming and others singing Broadway songs and popular music. But few of the tracks even approach the correct style or interpretive depth of a Streisand or a Sinatra. However, I have never heard of an opera singer hoping to be called a “pop singer.” They know they are just singers of songs.

So let’s respect the special abilities of all singers in their chosen fields, but recognize that an opera singer is a very special creature found on opera stages and not just on recordings. Some of the best appear with San Diego Opera.

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