Opera vs. Popera: The Rise of Andrea Bocelli and Confusion

The majority of young singers do not begin their conscious singing lives with a sense of the physical effort it takes to produce a bona fide operatic sound.  A generation ago, there was consensus on what an operatic sound is.  In the space of a few decades, the world of vocal pedagogy has become dominated by idiomatic methods developed specifically for Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM).  Just as methods have developed for classical music over centuries, it is only logical that methods would develop to meet the specific needs of the growing number of very diverse sub-genres (e.g. pop, rock, gospel, musical theater, etc…) that fall under the umbrella of CCM.  This is all very positive.  The downside of this, in my opinion, is the coincidence of the emergence of these techniques (too many to name) with the onset of the phenomenon called Pop Opera or Popera, represented by the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, and Sarah Brightman, et al.

At the onset of the Three Tenors’ unexpected mega-success in 1990, decision-makers in the classical music world decided to capitalize on the lucrative potential of not only the Three Tenors but the idea of Opera as a popular medium.  The first concert was well-conceived, whereby the singers performed challenging arias that exposed both the strengths and flaws of their individual artistry (a real operatic challenge) and then as dessert, they presented a medley of popular tunes, that they were known for, sung with fully supported operatic technique.  Unfortunately, impresarios and concert presenters got the wrong message from this success.  They assumed the popular tunes is what the audience applauded instead of the fully developed artistries of those three magnetic individuals.  They were fully developed, bona fide, opera singers with very large personalities to accompany their powerful voices, at times challenged, at times simply radiant–not to mention the return of a beloved artist, Jose Carreras, from a fierce battle with leukemia, which was the philanthropic cause behind that concerts.

After that followed less successful concerts by The Three Sopranos, whose reputations did not rise to the level of their tenor predecessors.  Then came Three Irish Tenors, Ten Tenors, Il Divo, and Three mo’  Tenors, who brought something of interest both in terms of musical diversity and a necessary attention to the injustice that kept many capable Black tenors from the mainstream.  Yet none of that could rival the powerful artistry of the Three Tenors’ initial concert.  What followed even from them thereafter was pale by comparison.  It had become about how many millions one can earn for those stadium concerts.  The musical preparation became lackluster and the programming unbalanced at best.  Artistry was secondary.

Pavarotti had already presented many concerts with Pop Stars like Zucchero, James Brown, Lucio Dalla, Michael Bolton, etc, in the context of the Pavarotti and Friends series.  In that situation, the strategy was to bring together artists of different genres for a cause.  The lines were clear between who the opera singer was and the pop singers who would try their luck at an operatic aria.  It was entertaining, and we laughed when Brian Adams threw his voice with humility at the Neapolitan song, “O sole mio” in duet with Pavarotti.  Great entertainment for entertainment sake.  No one imagined those pop singers to be opera singers.

Then came the phenomenon, named Andrea Bocelli, a very successful Italian pop singer, known for is fresh love songs, who had the pedigree of studying with one of the greatest tenors of the 20th century, Franco Corelli.  He was a fine musician, who happened to be blind.  Some wrongly criticized Bocelli, saying that he would not have been so successful if he were not blind.  Whether his blindness added something extra to his overall artistic package is debatable.  But the reason for Bocelli’s crossover success stems from his operatic lineage (having Corelli as his teacher), being a fine musician by any standard, and most importantly that he broke into the scene precisely when there was a significant vacuum in terms of Italian/Latin tenors that could continue after The Three Tenors, in a music-business environment that sought to maximize on the idea of “the opera singer as crossover artist” on the heels of the Three Tenors’ unprecedented success.  With Bocelli’s pop credits, connection to Corelli and his innate musical sensitivity, not to mention his special brand of charisma (proven that this particular element comes from within), he was the perfect man at the perfect time.  Thus far, there are no complaints — that is if we imagine Bocelli in the same vein as Mario Lanza!  There are two differences between Lanza and Bocelli.  1) Lanza emitted a bona fide operatic tone.  The acoustics bear it out. 2) Lanza had an operatic voice and according to lore, only sang two full-length operatic roles: Pinkerton in New Orleans and Fenton in Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor in Tanglewood.  In 1947 he toured alongside the legendary George London and the excellent American baritone, Robert Weede.  His Tanglewood experience must have happened at the behest of Tanglewood Music Director and teacher of Leonard Bernstein, Serge Koussevitzky. He had also impressed Philadelphia Orchestra conductor, Eugene Ormandy. Because he was possessed of a true operatic voice, he was able to bring attention to opera in a very positive and effective way via his performances on the movie screen.  Listening to Lanza, when one went to the opera house, there would not have been a significant difference if one heard Tucker or Corelli.  Meanwhile, Bocelli also sang a single role:  Werther at Michigan Opera Theater in November 1999.  The review from the New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini says it all.

That Bocelli failed the operatic test would have been less of an issue if not for the fact that The Three Tenors must not have realized that their success at once brought great attention to opera and blurred the lines between what is considered real operatic singing and a popular singer’s aping the operatic sound.  Besides making a lot of money on The Three Tenors project, Carreras, Domingo, and Pavarotti must have genuinely thought that they would help bring attention to their art form in a way no one before had.  It seemed logical to all of us who were invested in Opera’s continuity in those days.  The dark side of it was not to be experienced until Bocelli flourished despite his abysmal failure in Michigan.  The public was not tuned to live performances anymore.  They had been using personal listening devices for at least a decade, with the popular Sony Walkman.  Bocelli sounded like the closest thing to Pavarotti, considered at the point to be the King of Operatic Tenors.  I first heard Bocelli in a television broadcast of this edition fo Pavarotti and Friends:

My back had been turned away from the television when I heard this voice and immediately took me by surprise.  I thought I had heard a smaller version of Corelli’s voice, without knowing at the time that he studied with Corelli.  I thought the voice was elegant and if fully supported could become something remarkable.  It has operatic qualities.  It is not a raw pop voice.  It is the beginnings of a classical technique and the operatic novice might not be able to make enough difference between that and Pavarotti’s truly operatic sound.  A novice might have erroneously deduced that Bocelli only has a smaller voice than Pavarotti but that he is, in fact, an opera singer.  The majority of the CD buying public made that erroneous assumption and the lines became forever blurred between what is Opera and what is operatic mimicry or Popera!

The heightened intensity of Opera can be offputting for some who experience it on headphones or speakers for the first time.  The magic of opera is more powerful in the opera house, in a dramatic context, and with fully developed opera singers.  For a generation of listeners with aural appendages (headphones), the sweet, less penetrating, weakly supported, tones of Bocelli were more approachable.  The fact that he is a native Italian completed the illusion. 

In the quarter-century since Bocelli appeared in that edition of Pavarotti and Friends, no one has sold more classical recordings than he has and many of the gate-keepers of Opera no longer understand the difference between real operatic singing and operatic mimicry.  Hence, young operatic upstarts concentrate more on the definition of their six-packs than on the development of their breath support, more on their presentational cliché hand gestures than on operatic acting, which must take the musical environment in context and more on popular mannerisms and involuntary nuances than on idiomatic musical phrasing requiring true musicianship.  When we make it so superficial and easy, we cannot fault millions of young people looking for an easier path to operatic success.  Of the millions of operatic aspirants in the world, we must find a way to separate the wheat from the chaff!

© April 28, 2018

3 thoughts on “Opera vs. Popera: The Rise of Andrea Bocelli and Confusion

Add yours

  1. I know Lanza sang with George London and Frances Yeend in a trio
    called The Bel Canto Trio. I was unaware he had sung with Robert Weede,
    who was a fine baritone. The fact that Lanza was able to sing with London
    and Yeend tells you all you need to know about the size of his voice.


  2. I know Lanza sang with George London and Frances Yeend in a trio
    called The Bel Canto Trio. I was unaware he had sung with Robert Weede,
    who was a fine baritone. The fact that Lanza was able to sing with London
    and Yeend tells you all you need to know about the size of his voice.


  3. I know Lanza sang with George London and Frances Yeend in a
    group named The Bel Canto Trio. I didn't know he had sung with
    Robert Weede, who was a fine baritone. The fact that Lanza was
    able to hold his own with London and Yeend, both of whom had
    enormous voices, tell you all you need to know about the size of
    his voice.


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