If “popera,” the fusion of pop music imagery, attitude, and marketing with operatic vocalism (even the pop-arranging of opera and classical music) must exist, then thank God Simon Cowell, of American Idol fame, finally stepped into the picture.
With his quartet of GQ male opera singers and their self-titled album Il Divo, producer Cowell has taken a big step toward making this music – a genre that rock and pop fans find cheesy and opera fans find insulting and, uh, cheesy – more palatable for both.
Il Divo are American tenor David Miller, Swiss tenor Urs Buhler, a French pop singer named Sebastien Izambard, and Spanish baritone Carlos Marin.
I’m an opera singer who listens to pop music at home if I’m not studying music, and I don’t mind making it known that I like to keep my peas and carrots separate most of the time. As my not-so-nice review of a group called The Ten Tenors showed, I have in the past found “popera” and the artists who do it grating, with very few exceptions.
My main problem?
That rather than being a “gateway drug” into liking and supporting opera, the typically sub-par voices that seem to characterize this style of music give the wrong idea of what opera should sound like, what you might experience if you drop hard-earned money on your local opera company’s next production of La Traviata.
What bothers me most of the time is that opera is a visceral experience; a lot of what passes for “popera” lacks that gut-punch. Opera connoisseurs know that there is almost, for the real fan, a sporting-event element in watching live opera singers without microphones. It’s part of the thrill. If you don’t think opera-singing requires figurative cojones, let’s see how well you would do cloaked in 30-40 pounds of costume, three layers of makeup and a very uncomfortable wig, navigating a tilted or turning stage under shifting lights for the better part of three hours while still singing page upon page of music in a language other than your native tongue, at a volume that would normally be reserved for great anger or cheering at a ball game.
One reason opera is thrilling is because the constitution required of the men or women who trod the old-school stage and do it is such that the sound you get is one that reeks of power. Opera is far from the effete stereotyped view many Americans in particular seem to have of the art; it is, at it’s best, red-blooded and gutsy.
“Popera,” simply put, often lacks balls.
Il Divo are more exciting to listen to than any of their predecessors because if they understand one thing, they understand that operatic singing is something you do with moxie.
Sure, there is plenty of crooning to be found on Il Divo’s album; the song that is getting the most publicity from the disc, “Regresa A Mi,” the spanish version of Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak my heart,” only caught my attention once all four guys joined in singing the chorus – the song went from mid-level, easy-listening pop then to something a bit more virile and interesting, and my attention was snared.
Each singer gets to shine on the album – it is difficult to determine from liner notes who sings solo parts, though I might assume that the photo of an individual member being with the lyrics to one or two songs may indicate that guy has the lead on the cut. In general the two tenors, David and Urs, are far above average for opera alone, much less pop. One has a full, almost baritonal sound reminiscent of a young Domingo, the other has a thrilling top not unlike current straight-out opera star Roberto Alagna. Baritone Carlos Marin is easy to pick out – his is a true, solid lyric baritone, equally well-suited usually to classic broadway music and the operatic stage. Here he gets to show off his own top notes – trust me, baritones love their high notes as much as any tenor – and Marin is well-suited to the Italian-language version of “Feelings” found on cut 9. Yes, the “c word” – cheesy – applies to that particular cover rather well, but I still found it enjoyable for the richly-voiced melody and impeccable Italian.
Pop singer Sebastien Izambard acquits himself so well in this group that one wonders why he’s set apart in publicity about the group as the lone “pop” voice. My favorite song on the album, written by famed soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone, is cut 3, “Nella Fantasia,” and here Izambard’s voice appears to be heavily featured. He sings with nuance and taste, but easily throws in with the other three in the big, full-throated moments in all the songs on the album.
There are forgettable bits on this album, it’s true, and no small amount of the europop sound that makes me wince on albums by other similar groups. But the power of the vocalism and the very classy way the CD – the group, really – is packaged make it on balance a much more appealing offering than any of the previous “popera” albums I’ve sampled.
What works here is the unapologetic use of operatic vocalism, even in the big moments of the pop arrangements. Il Divo’s best moments almost give the kind of thrill felt when hearing a recording of Pavarotti in his prime singing something like “Di quella pira” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Almost, mind you – I can’t rob Pav of his props as the king, even for this entertaining quartet of singers.
Much of America seems to think Simon Cowell is the antichrist, at least for a few minutes each Tuesday during primetime on Fox. He has made his reputation as the “nasty judge,” a kind of anti-Brit to those who still believe in the stereotype of the stuffy, stiff-upper-lipped overly polite Briton.
Those who don’t really understand what American Idol is all about just think he’s a jerk. Those who do understand begin to see after a while that Simon is the most important judge on the show. It’s evident much of the time his is the critique the contestants most want to hear, the one that they take home with them and work with during the week before the next show. Think what you like about Cowell, he seems to know how to make music make money for him and those he produces and promotes.
With Il Divo he’s outdone himself, but I think he knows it. Here’s what Simon said to People Magazine about the endeavor and how it compared with his American Idol duties; “It was rather like eating bread and water for three or four years and then suddenly somebody serves you the best food in the world…”
After dining on the cheap processed cheesy product of previous “popera” albums and artists I have to echo Simon’s sentiments about Il Divo. Maybe not “the best food in the world” – as the impresario Cowell does have a responsibility to hype his product – but pretty damn good.