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What’s Popera, Doc?

So I’m listening to the debut album by the latest British working-class sensation. Russell Watson is from Salford—the bad part of Manchester; great start—and has even had himself photographed in front of the Salford Lads Club (which looks much more battered than it did when the Smiths posed there 15 years ago). On this album, given the impeccably egotistical title The Voice, he duets with Máire Breenan (of the way-Celtic Clannad) and Shaun Ryder (once of the charismatically polluted Happy Mondays). So far, so good. And then he sings arias by Verdi and Puccini.

Oh, did I mention that Watson is an opera singer?

Purists, I suppose, would say that he isn’t. He’s never had formal voice training; according to The Voice’s adoring liner notes, Watson started out in working-men’s clubs belting tunes associated with Meat Loaf and Michael Bolton. On the album, he sings “Someone Like You,” 2001’s chick-flick standard. (It’s the climactic song not only of the movie that was named after it but also of that film’s doppelgänger, Bridget Jones’s Diary.) Watson also executes a credible imitation of Art Garfunkel (he skips doing Paul Simon, however) on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” pays tribute to Ultravox with “Vienna,” and—here’s where Ryder comes in—pomps his way through “Barcelona.”

Which reminds me that if there’s anything more bathetic than operatic crossover—popera, if you will—it’s sports music. Watson graduated from the blue-collar bars to singing for football (aka soccer) and rugby championships. He belongs to a tradition that includes not only the Three Tenors—who sing arias in sports arenas—but also Abba and Queen. He could very well have turned up on the soundtrack of the upcoming A Knight’s Tale, blaring, “We will, we will opera you.”

This stuff sells in the United States, and it sometimes even originates here: Rent, for example, is prime popera. But it’s mostly a European—and specifically a British—perversion. Perhaps that’s because the “high” arts are more esteemed in that more class-structured society, inducing successful former upstarts such as Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello to write oratorios and collaborate with string quartets and opera singers. (Costello’s latest musical flame is Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, and, sure enough, they do an Abba song together.)

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Yet British pop also has a grandiose side quite apart from faux-classical pretensions. The Eurovision Song Contest—in which Abba first triumphed in 1974 with “Waterloo”—is a rich source of poperatic ballads of the sort no self-respecting American rocker would countenance. (Most Eurovision winners make no impact in the States.) And in the ’60s, while U.S. Top 40 radio was still making room for crooning elder statesmen such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, the British had the far showier Tom Jones.

In fact, a sampler of songs from the upcoming Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From the British Empire and Beyond, a compilation of non-American garage bands active from 1964 to 1969, shows that Jones was an influence on British and European garage rockers otherwise dedicated to expanding (or recapitulating) the legacy of “You Really Got Me” and “Shape of Things to Come.” The Koobas’ “The First Cut Is the Deepest” could be a hair-metal power ballad, and the vocals on “Going Nowhere” by Spain’s Los Bravos sound like a higher-pitched Jones.

Jones is Welsh, of course, and Wales’ foremost musical hallmark has long been the male choir. It survived while much Welsh folk music was destroyed because it was associated with the church, one of the few institutions the occupying English didn’t want to be seen as oppressing. So it’s no surprise that Wales has produced some of today’s popera stars, notably Charlotte Church and Bryn Terfel (who has the decency not to play too blatantly to the crossover crowd).

Still, the capital of popera is London, and largely because of one man: Andrew Lloyd Webber. He was the one who updated British light opera with Eurovision melodies and production values and soap-opera sentiments. (Unlike Gilbert and Sullivan’s, Webber’s musicals don’t draw laughs—or at least they’re not supposed to.) There are plenty of legit Euro-opera stars, such as Andrea Bocelli and Cecilia Bartoli, whose work has been chopped and chaneled for crossover audiences. But the queen of popera is Webber’s onetime muse, Sarah Brightman, whose recent La Luna album mixes Beethoven, Dvorùák, and Rachmaninoff with Italian soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone (also represented on The Voice), as well as with “Scarborough Fair,” pioneering Bach-rock hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and a bit of reggae. Brightman breathily combines the appeal of three unctuous genres: opera, the poperatic musical, and sensitive-waif folk-rock. (Kate Bush, this could have been you.)

It’s possible to come to hate this stuff from two different directions. Most opera buffs aren’t pleased by Webber and Brightman’s goopy hybrid. As for me, I think the best thing on The Voice is Ryder, who’s playful, offhand, and far too grounded to share in Watson’s bluster. Ironically, at a time when British music has virtually vanished from the American charts, popera is thriving. Today’s pop could use the dryness of British irony and wit, but instead the U.K.’s most successful musical export seems to be brimstone and treacle. —Mark Jenkins

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