A classical case of crossover

Russell Watson is a most unlikely name for an operatic tenor

A classical case of crossover

Sat, Jan 6, 2001, 00:00

Russell Watson is a most unlikely name for an operatic tenor. Maybe that’s why the press release which accompanies this young man’s debut CD, The Voice, is emblazoned with names of a rather more glamorous hue – Bergonzi, Domingo, Lanza, Pavarotti. There is even an endorsement from Denis Law. “Russell Watson,” it goes, “can do for opera what George Best did for football in the ’60s.” Oh, joy: a red-clad Watson shimmering across the stage, leaving hordes of clumpy-footed Puccini merchants caught square, as angels sing a heavenly chorus in the wings. There’s just one problem with this vision of a brave new world of opera for the populus. Well, actually, three problems. First, Best was brilliant, but we all know what happened when his particular fat lady started to sing. Second, Watson has never appeared on an operatic stage and, by his own admission, is not, in the immediate future, likely to. And third – excuse me, but have I got the right Denis Law? Classy Man U striker and, ahem, opera buff? What if it all goes wrong, and Watson (who was a pub singer until he discovered he could belt out Nessun Dorma with the best of them and was invited to sing, first at Old Trafford, and then at the Champions’ League Final at Barcelona’s Nou Camp stadium last year) ends up doing for football what Best did for opera?

Welcome to the world of classical crossover. A world where, if the marketing conceit is sufficiently startling or sufficiently amusing, nobody bothers to examine it for a modicum of common sense. A world where emerging stars are photographed in provocative outfits and sultry poses – and that’s only the men. Women are expected to show a bit of leg, do their make-up a la Callas (Filippa Giordano) or drape themselves over CD covers looking like Charlie Dimmock in drag (Izzy).

Crossing over, however, is not as simple as you might imagine. The rules of the game are strict, but unpredictable. Looks are crucial – unless you’re Pavarotti. Three’s the perfect number – unless you’re a soprano. The path to classical crossover heaven is strewn with unsold “three soprano” acts. Nor is it enough to be a great classical artist. Crossover may have begun with great classical artists at play, but ever since the “three tenors” phenomenon proved to classical marketing departments that there is a way to sell opera to people who reckon Rinaldo is that Brazilian bloke with the wonky knee, it has become a full-time occupation – and for those who hit the jackpot, a very lucrative one. Look at Charlotte Church: £10 million in three years. Look at the Irish Tenors, which is turning out to be as important an export commodity as Irish whiskey. And look at Russell Watson. (In fact, it’s difficult to avoid looking at him for the next month or so, for there has been a lot of fuss about Watson redefining the concept of the operatic tenor, and he was very present on TV at Christmas).

So what is all the fuss about? Well, The Irish Times can report that Watson is pleasant, clean-cut and charming. Having grown up on the Salford side of the Manchester tracks, he has a terrific accent and a healthy grip on life’s grimmer realities. And even though his wife had recently had a baby and he appeared to be hell-bent on achieving a new world record for interviews per second – he devoted 10 minutes of his life to a telephone conversation with this newspaper. Here are a few action replays: IT: So here you are, a wildly successful tenor, and yet you’ve completely skipped the classic tenor apprenticeship of dragging yourself around the world singing the ghastliest roles in all opera . . .

Watson: Yeah. But then by the same token, I’ve spent four or five years lugging 10-ton speakers round working men’s clubs in the north-west of England, and done it that way. So I’ve been training. I’ve not been at conventional music colleges – instead I’ve had to go round making a living for myself and my family. IT: You must have had a few nasty moments on that circuit, though?

Watson: [chuckles] A lot of the stories are just down to funny things that have happened, though, as opposed to nasty things that have happened. I remember one night, for instance, in a pub I was performing in, which is in quite a rough area of Manchester. I’d just started to sing the first number, which was Sacrifice by Elton John, and I was halfway through when all the doors and windows burst open and something like 20 police came storming through different entrances, pinning customers against the wall and handcuffing people, pulling drugs out of pockets and so on. There were maybe 30 people in the room, and by the time they’d finished there were about five left who hadn’t been done for possession. I remember walking over to the landlady and saying, `Erm, maybe I should go home now’. And she turned round to me and she says, [adopts a glorious Manchester landlady voice] `Don’t be bloody daft – they do this every bloody week. Geddon wi’it’. IT: And now you’re hobnobbing – in the charts, at least – with the likes of Robbie Williams and Madonna.

Watson: We’ve been number one in the classical charts for two months. Our highest in the pop charts was number five. (The album has been in the pop charts for 14 weeks.) But what’s happening as well – myself, Robbie Williams and Madonna have maintained top 20 status for, sort of, eight to 10 weeks, whereas artists like, say for instance, Kylie Minogue and The Spice Girls, Beautiful South and so on have gone in and spent a couple of weeks up there. We’ve maintained stability right through. IT: And all those telly appearances . . . Watson: Well, I was booked for the Barrymore show, the Des O’Connor Christmas special, another visit to Richard and Judy’s morning programme, Gloria Hunniford, and a special for Watchdog in Lapland. IT: Oh, really? What did that involve – checking up on Santa Claus? Watson: Basically it involved goin’ out and singin’ in the bloody freezin’ cold. Pretty snowflakes and so on . . . IT: It’s a whirl, isn’t it? Watson: It’s rock ‘n’ roll. Ah, yes: rock ‘n’ roll. And it’s not all sweetness and light, either. What Watson’s press pack doesn’t tell you is that his management got into a bit of a scrap with Classic FM late last year when the radio station – billed as the home of popular classics – didn’t play The Voice as often as The Artist felt was his due. Watson’s manager promptly demanded the return of all 25 free copies of the album which had been sent to the station’s presenters – a delightfully operatic touch – and there was a great deal of mumbling and grumbling about elitism and snobbery. Watson professed bemusement: “My album has been number one in the classical charts for five weeks,” he pointed out to The Daily Mail, “so why aren’t they playing it?”

It’s anybody’s guess, of course. But maybe they were just stuck to find a track suitable for play on classical radio. There are 14 tracks on The Voice, of which only three could be said to be strictly opera: Amor ti Vieta from Fedora, La Donna e Mobile from Rigoletto and Nessun Dorma from Turandot. The rest are Neapolitan songs (Funiculi, Funicula, Non Ti Scordar Di Me), all-purpose ethereal (Panis Angelicus, Sayon Dola with Maire Brennan), “contemporary” Italian pop (Nella Fantasia, Caruso, Miserere), Spice Girls pop (Someone Like You with Cleopatra Higgins, though that drifts into Italian now and again as well) and classic pop (Bridge Over Troubled Water, Vienna, and a terrifically OTT version of Freddie Mercury’s Barcelona with Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays).

It’s perfectly obvious to any self-respecting Shostakovich fan that this is to classical music what goats’ cheese bruschetta is to classical food – a grab-bag of trendy, cheerful and reasonably cheap ingredients which can be mixed together in a flash and put forward as interesting and nutritional. Maybe it is. In Watson’s case, it’s undeniably palatable. And while comparisons with Bergonzi, Domingo, Pavarotti – and even Lanza – can, and should, be laughed out of court, when it comes to crossover, Watson has a vital advantage over the very best classically-trained tenors – namely, his very lack of classical training. Anybody with a decent voice can be trained to toss off the belt canto standards – Nessun Dorma and the rest – with effortless ease, but no operatic tenor worth his salt could sing 1980s popsongs as effortlessly and stylishly as Watson does. Maybe that’s what all the fuss is about. Maybe, instead of redefining the concept of an operatic tenor, Watson has redefined the concept of classical crossover. Or, as the press release would have it, shifted the goal-posts.

Rusell Watson’s album, The Voice, is available on Decca Records. Izzy’s album, Ascolta, is on Virgin Records.

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