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Classical Notes

"Popera" Backlash

Posted at 3:06 PM on February 25, 2008 by Gillian Martin (25 Comments)

In a recent article in The Telegraph, Dame Kiri te Kanawa minced no words on the subject of "popera" singers--those opera-lite crossover artists like Hayley Westenra who sell millions of CDs.

"They are all fake singers, they sing with microphones," she said. About Hayley Westenra in particular, a fellow New Zealander, Dame Kiri said, "Have you heard Hayley? She's not in my world. She has never been in it at all."

A blogger named Steve Huff succinctly explains the different worlds Dame Kiri is talking about:

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. 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.

To hear the difference, check these videos of Dame Kiri and Hayley Westenra singing the same aria. (And don't let Dame Kiri's dress influence your decision.)

I agree with Dame Kiri and Steve Huff--but the fact remains that many people prefer the sound of popera, and those people may not be interested in seeing an actual opera.

What do you think?


Comments (25)

Steve Huff and Dame Kiri are both absolutely right!

I think that most of the people who enjoy this "popera," as you call it, have probably never heard a real opera singer performing with a full orchestra, unamplified, in an opera house. There isn't any way that this teenybopper with her microphone and questionable vocal technique would be heard past the pit! If audiences were exposed to the real thing, in all its power and beauty, I believe they would appreciate the difference and, I hope, would gain an appreciation for and interest in opera.

Until I heard recordings of actual opera singers and attended my "first" opera while in college, I had no idea what the human voice could do. I truly hope that the people who listen to this Hayley person will someday soon hear Te Kanawa, Leontyne Price, Beverley Sills, Callas, Caballe, Victoria de los Angeles, Sutherland, Nilsson, Tebaldi, Renee Fleming, Karita Mattila, even Netrebko, and consider the difference, not only in the voice, but also in interpretation and musicality!

Unfortuately, this girl's serene facial expression and poor Italian diction clearly demonstrate that she has no idea what she's saying (much less any idea of correct style), and it bores me to tears. When I listen to real singers, my tears come from anything BUT boredom!

Mediocrity is not the way to win new fans to the art form, which is why singers study for years, even decades. Hayley sounds like a third-year vocal student whose mother paid for time in a recording studio. I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case.

Posted by Tricia | February 25, 2008 4:54 PM


Westenra comes from a modest New Zealand family whose parents were told by a school-teacher that she had extraordinary musical promise. She had taken part in 40 odd productions by the time she was 11 and then busked on the streets to make some money. She was encouraged to record her voice by a family friend and she sent a recording to a record company in New Zealand who made a deal with her sight unseen.

She was then offered a deal with Decca said to be worth 3Million pounds, and her first record "Pure" was the fastest selling classical debut record of all time in the UK and it is the best-selling record of the decade. Her three other albums have also sold in the millions.

She is featured on the soundtrack of The Merchant of Venice (with Andreas Scholl), and several other films. Has sung with Bryn Terfel and José Carreras (and many others).

At 21 her CV at places like iMDb is almost as long as Dame Kiri's.

But she's never claimed to be an opera singer, and what is controversial is her being classified as "classical". She has said that she was surprised by this herself, since most of what she did was not strictly classical. Her material is about 90% what used to be called "easy listening". The record companies in the UK have lumped this in under classical to boost sales figures.

Incidentally, I have instrumentalist friends who think her version of O Mio "excellent". And it is very plain to anyone who understands good acting that she understands perfectly what she is saying. That she does not risibly overact like most modern opera stars is not to her detriment. And if she is not in that clip where she is barely 16 as good as the world's best opera stars in their 40s this is not surprising. She was much better at 16 than Dame Kiri was at 16. But she does very few arias and it is hardly fair to judge her on them.

Posted by Stuart | February 25, 2008 7:07 PM




The real question is why did Dame Kiri even say what she said? She answered a question she wasn't asked in the first place and Hayley has never claimed to be an opera singer, though she often has to correct this not uncommon misconception. However, Dame Kiri should know better.

Kiri's question (by NZ Weekend Herald, Canvas supplement) was: "Has the rapid rise of so-called classical crossover, singers like Westenra, created a new audience for opera? A kind of trickle-up effect?" She then proceeded to say "I don't talk about crossover" but instead of stopping there, she made unprovoked and insulting remarks about another singer and her genre of music; even worse, one of the very few singers from her own Country of New Zealand who has achieved International success. Why would someone of Dame Kiri's stature feel the need to do this? I am baffled.

In reality, Hayley's World barely touches opera at all. From around 80 tracks she has recorded, only half a dozen are operatic arias so it's hard to see why her name is even being mentioned in this context.

But there is an overlap between their Worlds; you can listen to them both sing "Pokarekare Ana" - Kiri (starts after 1m 25s) and Hayley (starts after 20s) with both sung live. Most people (opera buffs perhaps excepted) prefer Hayley's version and it may be this area of overlap that has Dame Kiri seemingly rattled. Hayley's voice is simply more suited to that sort of traditional/folksy song and that's why she is successful at what she does.

As for Kiri's assertion that singers who use a microphone are fake, well that is one of the most foolish comments I have ever heard from such a distinguished personality. They (and Hayley in particular) do not claim to be able to sing in large concert halls without amplification and they use microphones, amplifiers and speakers openly. No deception is involved so by definition, they are not fake. Well no more fake than Dame Kiri Te Kanawa herself last Sunday, when she sang outdoors at the Auckland Domain using... a microphone, amplifiers and speakers. I rest my case.

Posted by Dave | February 25, 2008 7:22 PM


A couple of points I must add:
If she sounds like a third year vocal student, that in itself can't be too bad, since she has had no formal training at all.

Do give us a break with this microphone business. She has to have a microphone on a TV show or it couldn't be recorded.

And you have no way of telling how well she could project in an opera hall with the superior acoustics and if she were trying to.

Projecting over an orchestra is not related to vocal strength but to a technique whereby the throat is shaped to produce certain frequencies. An orchestra doesn't produce frequencies over 300htz and the human voice with a bit of training can easily reach 8000htz. Anyone can learn to do this.

Singing with a microphone allows a quieter more conversational tone to be used and has been likened to the effect that film has had on acting. It also allows the singer much more nuance. I was just talking to a busker (street performer/singer) about this recently and have read a lot about it. She projects when she is on the street without a mic but sings differently and prefers to sing with a mic.

You have no idea what Westenra's projection is like, were she to need to. I have seen and heard her when she was 11 years old singing on the street. She could be heard much more clearly and from much further than adult male singers who seemed to be putting much more effort in. Singing on the street is much more difficult than in an opera hall with its sweet spots and good acoustics.

As far as the wonders of real opera, when the style of opera now in vogue first became popular, it was attacked by the purists of the day as refined and aristocratic singing being overun by a bourgeois love of spectacle and melodrama. The "refined and aristocratic" style was, amusingly, much more similar to what Westenra and other Popera types do. It is a reversion to an early time of opera, if you like. The blasting, from the chest, projecting style came into vogue with orchestras getting bigger and louder.

That the classical vocalism now in vogue is the summit of vocal achievement is a groundless assertion. It is just a style -- a fashion.

Posted by Stuart | February 25, 2008 7:34 PM


Thank you Dave. And notice how Te Kanawa singing Pokarekare Ana needs THREE big microphones, and Hayley only has one little one (LOL).

And notice how Hayley's voice, even at 16-17 sounds so much stronger and mature than Te Kanawa's, which sounds weak, thin, and insipid once she's out of her element in the acoustically boosted opera house, and with no orchestra to mask her weaknesses.

Westenra was highly rated by Terfel and Carreras:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFgKMxjGVT8
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5YmjK7UuOs
Older:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2o1c-1Q4_s

I forgot to add that when Bush was in Britain the wanted to put on an evening's entertainment for Blair, the Queen, and 60 odd assorted dignitaries. He asked Andrew Loyld Webber about it and Webber recommended Westenra to be the musical part of it. As a result of that evening, Westenra has also given two private concerts at the White House.

She was also, on another occasion, flown by private aircraft to provide entertainment for the Dalai Lama.

But this clip might be the most significant of all"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYljPCk5_yU

That's Westenra singing in front of the Queen, Prime ministers of New Zealand and England at the New Zealand Memorial Dedication. An honour, yes, and a job that once would have gone without any hesitation to -- guess who?

This whole business is much more complicated than those not in the know may realise. Westenra is not well-known in the US but has a very loyal and growing following.

That she is hated by purists like Tricia and viciously attacked by them is to be expected. But this is not because she's mediocre LOL!

Posted by Stuart | February 25, 2008 8:21 PM


I must add in response to Tricia that Westenra's version of O Mio... is very popular just because it is obvious that she does know what she's saying, and because her acting is so much more realistic than the ghastly overacting that is so common in opera. Westenra submits to the role; whereas Te Kanawa is putting across one simple message: LOOK AT ME, AREN'T I CLEVER. Westenra's version has a sincerity, truthfulness and depth of intellectual understanding that Te Kanawa could never match. I'm sorry but that is how anyone from the acting professions would see it. Te Kanawa's version is pretentious nonsense.

Posted by Stuart | February 25, 2008 9:22 PM


Oh, yes, a couple of other points that may surprise Trica. Westenra was on 5 September 2006, named as one of the ten outstanding young people in the world by the Junior Chamber International.

And from an online bio:
"Also in 2004, she began her world tour of New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and the UK, performing in a concert in November for Her Majesty The Queen, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Prince Charles, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and President George W. Bush. In her autobiography, she remembered feeling more nervous in her audition, where she sight read a unreleased piece to Andrew Lloyd Webber that he had written. Her successful career was again bolstered at the Sydney Opera House where she received a rare standing ovation. She concluded 2004 with a successful Christmas tour of the east coast of the United States as guest soloist with the Boston Pops Orchestra.

She also sang the Unicef theme song at some Unicef event and is the youngest Unicef ambassador ever.

The truth is so far removed from Tricia's lofty assessment that this was someone whose mother had paid for time in a recording studio that one must wonder if Tricia knows much about music at all. Perhaps she is just supporting Dame Kiri because she wants to be seen in a particular light.

Posted by Stuart | February 25, 2008 11:04 PM


Tricia and Steve Huff, please get real. Yes, I have seen "real" opera and I had heard Te Kanawa before Hayley was born.

Some quotes from an interesting article:
--------------------------------------------------------
"But more and more, music-lovers of many sorts are showing signs of resistance to the overly fruity, throbbing, blasting sound -that's how they hear it - of the stereotypical opera singer. Conversely, there is clearly a fresh interest in, not to say preference for, quieter, subtler singing than a typical verismo-style opera singer can offer."

"The microphone has affected singing style in much the same manner that the movie camera changed 19th-century acting. In both cases, the new technology stripped the older styles of rhetorical emphasis and stressed a conversational naturalism. Henry Pleasants, the London-based American critic, has argued that the typical microphone singer, as in the crooning of a Bing Crosby or a young Frank Sinatra, represented a rebirth of the text-centered singing favored by the Florentine inventors of opera. As it happens, people still enjoy virtuosic display and the image of effortful exertion, even when amplified -witness the popularity of rock belters like Rod Stewart and Bruce Springsteen and gospel-inflected shouters and rhetorical balladeers like Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin.

There will always be a place for elite art in even the most aggressively democratic of cultures - a kind of art, and a kind of singing, that is the best medium for the best composers of the day. But in the United States in the late 20th century, where more people probably love more different kinds of music than in any previous human culture, that highest standard need not - cannot - be verismo Italian opera of a century ago.

But our best and most representative singers, those closest to the creative vitality of the present, must sing for us, of our needs and our aspirations, not those of some long-past time and place. And they're already doing that, triumphantly. What's interesting now is how the hidebound but willing world of classical singing is finally becoming aware of its own, ongoing evolution.
-----------------------------------------------
If only it were true that the hidebound world of classical music was aware of its own evolution!

When I have watched opera I have had difficulty not bursting out laughing at the hilariously bad acting. And the pretentiousness of both performers and audiences is more overwhelming than the supposedly great singing. Opera singing is asthetically unpleasant. Sorry, but it's a fact.

As for the stamina needed, I see a woman weighing 20 stone was sacked from a role because she didn't look right. There was no mention of a lack of stamina. Given the sterotypical fat opera singer and how out of shape so many of them clearly are, it is hard to believe.

Someone like Westenra is travelling almost daily, doing concert after concert live (she does not lipsync) talk-shows in the morning: meeting and being photographed with fans after each concert. Living out of a suitcase, almost forever jet-lagged. and has about a week or so of a holiday every year that still involves press conferences. To say nothing of having to dodge the paparazzi and stalkers (she has had quite a bit of stalker trouble).

The opera singers are not going all out for 3 hours - they have rests while someone else is singing. This makes a huge difference.

Posted by Stuart | February 26, 2008 3:03 AM


1. This debate seems to be taking the question seriously on the basis of technical/interpretive observation rather than the slapping-down technique of Kiri.

2. If you refer to my post on my attendance at a Kiri concert (Linkyou will note my comments on this. It was perfectly possible for Kiri to raise a technical debate but IT WAS NEVER necessary for Kiri to be pejorative about anyone.


3. On this board you have the option of comparing:


Renee Fleming--whom I rate top, but see below


then Hayley equal with Church, see below


Kiri


Callas.


My reasons.


1. None of these recordings are equitable technically:

*a long time scale over which the recordings were made

*technological developments over that period

*different ambiance and acoustics of the performance venue


2. There is then interpretation. This is a song about a young girl pleading with her father to allow her to marry. Surprisingly none of the mature artists give the really impassioned delivery which I recall from a local artist in my teens and which made a lasting impression upon me. With hindsight perhaps she was OTT!


Arguably Hayley is the right age in reality, especially for today and her simplicity of delivery is arguably more correct. However at the period the opera was written daughters were expected to be obedient to their father's will until married off and could well be dependent upon their father well into the late twenties.


3. In this recording Hayley does sound a little 'reedy' but I believe this has everything to do with the recording quality which distorts her otherwise quieter and arguably more meaningful interpretation, where she makes the words more important than I perceive in the other singers, where the music and 'acting' contributes to the interpretation.


4. I place Hayley and Charlotte on a par because I think Church was that much younger than Hayley when her version was recorded and I respect her attempt at singing a song that is arguably over her age-range. I am also being realistic in comparing what we actually hear (I haven't yet played Hayley's CD recording 'Odyssey' (as in terms of immediate comparison)) making the proviso (knowing Hayley's voice for real) that her recoding here is a particularly bad technical rendition.


How do others feel about this?


If we are going to accept there is room for a serious debate then I accept the challenge. I more or less said this in my report when I attended Kiri's Cadogan concert (see link above) which was singularly meaningful because it was the same hall and same audience size (packed) as for Hayley. Arguably there were many there, perhaps half, who might well have heard Hayley, judging by the mixed styles of dress of that audience. In that small group of people waiting at the Stage Door I was involved with several people who had heard Hayley and thought favourably of her. In short this was an audience that appreciates BOTH artists and recognises AND ACCEPTS the reality of the difference in their delivery styles.


As this debate may possibly move into a seriously informed debate of style of presentation, youth/experience of artistses which could be of serious interest to many, it becomes increasingly clear that there was NEVER an excuse for Kiri to insult ANYONE.


What Kiri did was to reduce the prestigious status of a Dame of the British Empire to the level of a Pantomime Dame in the era of Fred Karno's Circus and that is totally unforgivable.


By the way, I was surprised to place Callas last. I think this was both a bad recording (way before modern electronics) and possibly an offnight for her. It does not represent the Callas I remember.

Peter S.

Posted by Peter Such | February 26, 2008 7:47 AM


I have had the displeasure to attend -- ahem, got dragged along to -- a couple of operas and have seen Kiri te Kanawa perform at the Lyric in Chicago. I remember thinking to myself, are these people kidding themselves? Everyone was screaming their arias out in voices that sounded absurd. Nobody in real life vocalizes like that unless it's a case of, "Eek, a mouse!"

I am a fan of Hayley Westenra who, thankfully, is not operatically trained. Her voice is strikingly beautiful and always sounds real like the real person she is, not some mutant with a steam whistle for vocal cords.

Posted by Stan | February 26, 2008 8:20 AM


Opera is a great art form but not many regular folks can afford the $200 or so for a pair of tickets for such as the Minnesota Opera. Like orchestral and chamber music from the so-called classical genre, in its time it was partially a music of the people or make out music for the titled. All of this has become rather elitist and inbred. Amplification and popularization may be necessary to get some attention before the whole musical niche evaporates for lack of interest.

Posted by Joe Danko | February 27, 2008 10:38 AM


Back to Dame Kiri's slapping down tactics. The Great Dame has recently done a duet with Katherine Jenkins, a genuine popera singer who bills herself as an opera singer although she has never performed in an opera. She is monumetally hated by the purists, much more so than Westenra, who is hardly in the popera genre at all. At her recent concert in New Zealand Te Kanawa's support singer was young popera star Will Martin.

I don't understand this. It is almost as though the Dame is pursuing a personal vendetta of some sort. This is not the first time she has bad-mouthed Westenra or snubbed her.

The purists difficulty with popera or crossover artists also bears examination. The degree of vituperation and nastiness directed at them on forums, on YouTube, and on opera forums by purists and hardcore opera fans is sometimes quite frightening. Comments like "DIE BITCH DIE", and other hopes for physical harm are often directed at Westenra and Jenkins on YouTube. It is argued seriously by opera fans on YouTube that Jenkins did not win a scholarship to the Royal Academy, but it was a mistake -- she received a letter sent to an instrumentalist of the same name. That the mistake was never rectified and she graduated with distinction, doesn't seem to bother these opera fans, who have what is an almost deranged need, it seems, to discredit the crossover singers.

It is also seriously argued that part of Jenkins contract was that she should have a breast enlargement operation and lose weight.

What I would like to know is what motivates this viciousness.

The opera community and classical seem to find these people threatening in some way. It occured to me that the popera singers are blurring the distinction between "classical" and "Pop" (an artificial distinction anyway).

But I think there must be more to it than that. I believe that singers like Church, Westenra, Watson, Jenkins, etc, are laying bare the fallacies the whole "Art" Music world is based on.

You see it is the Dame and the opera and Art Music community who are the fakes.

Here is a famous quote from Westenra:
“I get a lot of pleasure and satisfaction out of giving pleasure to people through my singing; that's fantastic, but it's only entertainment.”
-Hayley Westenra

"IT'S ONLY ENTERTAINMENT"

It's only entertainment -- she's not saying that everytime she opens her mouth it is High Art, or that she has reached the summit of artistic achievment: "it's just entertainment".

You'd think that his would absolve her from criticism as far as claiming to be something she is not is concerned; but, rather amusingly, this unpretentious and sensible statement seems to enrage the purists and opera fans more.

But let's look at Dame Kiri's claims in comparision to Westenra's. Dame Kiri, in comparing herself with Westenra, not only belittled Westenra but made it plain that she, as an opera singer was an artist who had reached the pinnacle of vocal achievement, and that what she did was High Art.

Opera singers sing material from the great composers. The great composers works meet the requirements of being described as High Art, sure. But Dame Kiri's singing Puccini no more makes her a great artist than my reciting Shakespeare makes me a great writer.

And when someone as unpretentious as Westenra gets up and sings classical material, the notion that "classical" singers are great artists and "classical" singing is monumentally different from Pop starts to look a bit silly.

So the purists and opera fans have to somehow discredit the crossover singers. That they don't do it properly is an obvious argument. But the vehemence and anger on the part of the purists suggests that they are not convinced by their own arguments. People are never so obnoxious and aggressive in defense as when they live in houses of straw and they can feel the wind shaking their abode. Just how bankrupt the purists arguments are is strikingly illustrated by the absurd argument about using microphones. It is so ridiculous it doesn't bare further comment.

The purists and opera fans also need to grasp that they have no authority to comment on anything but opera.

They have no authority to tell me, or Westenra, or anyone else, what is or is not good or correct singing.

They have no authority to tell me or anyone else what is or isn't art.

They have no authority to tell anyone what is or is not "classical" music.

The need to understand that to judge singing by the standards of verisimo (or whatever) opera is fallaciousl.

They need to remember that opera itself has evolved and changed in the past and may well change again in the future. There is an interesting article, "Opera's Dirty Little Secret" on the Net about the miking of opera houses that may be of interest.

BTW
Dame Kiri has now twice explained herself and claims the newspapers hyped her words and she was not attacking Westenra at all. She claims her reference to "fakes" was to those pop stars of the Britney Spears type who lip-sync. But she has now had to admit that she lip-synced herself at the commonwealth games. Her back-tracking is not being taken very seriously.

Another New Zealand Maori opera star who helped popera singer Elizabeth Marvelly with her Maori has said publically that Dame Kiri should apologise.

It has been remarked that Dame Kiri's world is one of pretension, snobbery, nastiness, and elitism, as opposed to the decency, pleasantness, modesty, and straightforwardness of Hayley's.

The one thing about which there can be no argument is that Hayley is in a different world from the Great Dame when in comes to dress sense.

PS: Your comparison of the two singers with the two versions of O Mio Babbino Caro is absurd, and quite frankly, borders on the dishonest.

You suggest that people should make a decision with the comment about Kiri's dress, but you have told them which answer is "correct", in advance. Still, what is the point in comparing an 16-year-old with someone in their prime and comparing them according to the rules the older person follows.

The issue is not just whether Hayley is doing it to the standards of opera; but whether they are valid standards to judge her by in the first place.

The crossover people are aiming at a different market from the opera fans. A market which likes a more subtle and nuanced music than the blasting and bellowing like a wounded animal that is typical of opera.

The purists can say whether Westenra and Co. are singing in accordance with the abitrary conventions of opera; but they cannot say that a failure to do so means that the are "worse" singers.

Opera and popera singing is different. There is every bit as much rational reason to say popera is "better" as to say opera is.

Incidentally, Te Kanawa also berated the popera singers for having no formal training. Rather like the literary elite in Shakespeare's time berated and belittled him. In fact there is a famous attack on Shakespeare in which he was effectively called a fake. Conservatives and eltitists never change; they parrot the same old codswallop every generation.


Posted by Stuart | February 27, 2008 8:48 PM


I don't believe it. I have just read a Steve Huff review in which he praises il Divo.

But of all the crossover and popera groups il Divo is the one that is usually most loathed by opera fans and opera critics. In the UK and Australasia and Europe anyway.

Posted by Stuart | February 27, 2008 11:26 PM


The Backlash Continues

Dame Kiri on 26 Feb was guest singer on the TV show Dancing With The Stars. Last year's guest singer was Westenra.

So far the reviewers are having a great time:


Manawatu Standard


"Cross received 32 for her cha cha with 2006 winner Aaron Gilmore - but let's face it, she's had 32 years on the stage where to Kiri Te Kanawa's horror, she has used a microphone.


It was also crass bad timing by ole Kiri to make a cameo on the show in her raincoat so soon after allegedly denouncing our cute wee warbler, Hayley Westenra, as a fake and for using a microphone. That instrument Kiri sang into most wondrously last night wasn't a black ice cream by the way!

And the Dominion Post

"Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who has said unkind things about our Hayley (Westenra not Holt) and has slung off at Kiwis' love of wearing jandals, made the decision to slum it on DWTS and proved she can't do crossover.

"She looked like a human skull who delivered Sondheim lines of which she knew nothing about the heart and soul. (She'd rather be fishing.)

And it wasn't Carl Doig's band's fault, either, for they are better than ever.

Dame Kiri was absolutely wrong, and has made a monumental fool of herself. And it's not the first time.

She has simply made herself the object of ridicule and contempt.

Jose Carreras, by contrast has always treated Westenra with enormous graciousness and has gone out of his way to help and encourage her. He invited her to sing at his leukemia organisation's functions and did a show in which she was his support artist. During the show the audience and critics were all impressed by the way Carreras went out of his way to help the then teenage and inexperienced Westenra. Bryn Terfel's attitude has been similar.

Contrast this with Dame Kiri's hostility.

And let me try to clear the air a little. Opera singers put in the work (well, some work) and develop skills. They deserve respect for that, but don't please give us all the cobblers about it being so much superior to other genres or the ultimate in vocalism. It is a style of singing, and not, to most people, an aesthetically appealing style.

And when we talk of putting in the work, it is interesting to compare Westenra and Te Kanawa. Westenra's family used to have monthly meetings to decide where the budget may be cut to help with music lessons that had been recommended by Westenra's school teachers. Westenra was also lucky in that Dame Malvina Major (possibly New Zealand's second most accomplished opera singer) gave her some free lessons. But when she needed money she (at 11 years old)went out and made it as a street performer.

Dame Kiri who later slammed the Maori people for accepting too many government handouts instead of working, was in her youth the recipient of many goverment grants!

Incidently, the Westenra has since paid back what ever moneys or free tuition she got. I doubt Kiri has paid back her government grants.

Posted by Stuart | February 28, 2008 9:13 AM


The Backlash Continues

http://icwales.icnetwork.co.uk/whats-on/whats-on-news/2008/02/28/opera-stars-rubbish-te-kanawa-s-katherine-jibes-91466-20533526/

Opera stars rubbish Katherine jibes

Feb 28 2008 by Karen Price, Western Mail

THE large-scale row which erupted following Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s dig at “opera fakes” like Katherine Jenkins took a new twist last night.

Representatives for the Neath-born mezzo soprano hit back at the New Zealand opera legend for saying they were “very surprised” at her stinging criticisms, especially after she shared a duet with Jenkins on one of her albums “for not a small fee”.

And opera stars like Lesley Garrett, as well as music critics and industry insiders, revealed their support for the likes of Jenkins, Hayley Westenra and Charlotte Church, who all came under attack.

Posted by Stuart | February 28, 2008 9:32 AM


Said Trica:

"I truly hope that the people who listen to this Hayley person will someday soon hear Te Kanawa, Leontyne Price, Beverley Sills, Callas, Caballe, Victoria de los Angeles, Sutherland, Nilsson, Tebaldi, Renee Fleming, Karita Mattila, even Netrebko, and consider the difference, not only in the voice, but also in interpretation and musicality!"

I have heard Callas, Sutherland, Fleming, and Netrbko, and I listened to Te Kanawa's squeaking for about half and hour last night. That's was the extreme limit I could cope with. I could listen to Westenra for hours on end, and I have considered the difference in the voice, and in interpretation and musicality. I prefer Westenra in every respect.

And I am hardly alone in saying she has a remarkable voice. The head of the Boston Pops Orchestra is one who has remarked on it, Andrew Lolyd Webber is another, Debbie Wiseman the composer is another who has said her voice was unique, Bryn Terfel said she was "brilliant", there have been many reviews even by purist reviewers that were positive (especially before she became involved with Decca who put her in the "classical" lists). "The purity of her upper registers defies belief", was one comment. "Her basic voice peals like the prettiest of bells and she has no difficulty with the high notes...".

I'm afraid that I don't take purist or opera fans criticism seriously anymore. You are so biased and so desparate to put anyone not an opera singer down that you simply aren't capable of sensible assessments.

Posted by Stuart | February 28, 2008 1:13 PM


This is a great topic and perhaps the Classical Notes crew will revisit it at a future date. Stuart, you've made yourself clear - please allow room for others to comment. Thank you!

Julia Schrenkler
Interactive Producer, New Media
American Public Media | Minnesota Public Radio

Posted by Julia Schrenkler | February 28, 2008 10:50 PM


Joe Danko writes:

"Opera is a great art form but not many regular folks can afford the $200 or so for a pair of tickets for such as the Minnesota Opera."

I'll grant that opera tickets are expensive (though I pay much less than $100 for a ticket to the Minnesota Opera), but they are no more so than those for pop concerts at the Xcel or Target Center. Regular folk go to those concerts, I'm told.

Singing with amplification is considerably different than singing without -- note the consternation when crooners like Bing Crosby developed singing styles for the microphone. Me, I prefer to hear a human voice unmediated when I go to the concert hall. If I wanted to listen to an amplified voice, I'd stay home and play the stereo. YMMV, of course.

Posted by Arthur | February 29, 2008 10:41 AM


For some reason, it cracks me up that blogging I did 3 years ago, before I became a professional journalist, still gets mentions and commentary.

Not that I mind. Funny thing is, in this instance, I stand by what I said originally about "popera." I believe I'm less overtly critical of the genre now, but my point about "real" opera still stands. And to me, that opinion was not at odds with my feelings on Il Divo, at all. The operatic voices in the trio passed muster to my ear, especially the baritone -- being a tenor myself, I'm much more picky about what I think is a good tenor sound (Pavarotti, Corelli, Domingo, and before them Bjoerling all got it right, basically).

I write about crime now, for the most part, so at the very least I am grateful to read this discussion of something I haven't really thought about approaching as a journalist since 2006. Funny thing is, I now feel like pulling out my aria books and mucking around with some Verdi, Gounod, and Puccini.

Anyway -- thanks all of you -- the blogger, those who saw my point, and those who didn't.

Posted by Steve Huff | March 3, 2008 12:19 PM


I am sorry to have dominated the discussion and thank you for letting me have my say. There are some points raised by Steve Huff's latest post that I think need comment because we are obviously defining popera differently.

But let me say for a start that I have no problem with Steve preferring and enjoying traditional opera. On a good day (especially when I haven't been told by some extreme purist that I am ignorant and intellectually challenged for not appreciating some esoteric technical point about opera) I will accept that opera is a valid means of expression and that opera singers have done a lot of training and deserve respect for it.

But I was interested in Steve Huff's definition of "popera" -- I only just noticed it:

"If "popera," the fusion of pop music imagery, attitude, and marketing with operatic vocalism (even the pop-arranging of opera and classical music)".

This sort of thing is a part of what I prefer to call "crossover" or "classical crossover" music, but it's only a small part of it; and a part that the purists usually treat with more disdain than the type of singing that Hayley Westenra and her ilk do. By that definition Westenra is not "popera" at all.

What happened in the UK is that the marketing people classified a lot of singers who would once have been called "easy listening" as "classical". This included Westenra and even Nana Mouskouri. The point was that they wanted to boost the sales of "classical" and did it in this fashion. The purists were infuriated that these singers were included under classical. Westenra, had actually gone on record as not wanting to do arias or classical material while still a teenager, because she felt this could harm her voice, since she wasn't doing the requisite training. But she was prevailed on by the Decca people to add some "classical" material to her repetoire. Whether she even tried to do it to the conventional opera standards is a moot point.

Since the crossover singers like Westenra's markets are quite different to the traditional opera fan, the issue is not only whether they do it to opera standard, but whether that is an appropriate standard to judge it by in the first place.

Please don't tell me that classical music must be sung in a particular way. Classical vocalism has changed and evolved in the past and the opera community does not own classical music.

If a crossover singer does "popify" classical material to suit their audience they have every right to. If purists don't like it, the don't have to listen to it. And the crossovers are actually singing in a fashion that is a reversion to an older type of opera. One music historian has likened Frank Sinatra and other crooners to an early type of opera.

My reaction to Steve's liking of il Divo is that the majority of purists and opera fans and critics that I have read have hated il Divo much more than most other "popera" acts (with the possible exception of Bocelli).

My point, that I didn't make plain, is that if the purists views vary so much, can their judgement of people like Westenra, Church, etc, be taken seriously?

I believe that Westenra and Co are being attacked on principle, and their actual musical ability is quite irrelevant. As my instrumenalist friend said - "they obviously have it in for her". The question is why? I think is is complicated and related to the fact that the crossover kids are laying bare some of the fallicies that the Art Music world is based on.

I am convinced that many opera and classical music fans don't understand the music but are pretending to. Taste is a form of social currency and this is more the case in the classical music world than elsewhere. On another board I was rubbished by someone who went on about the obvious difference in technique between someone like Westenra and great opera singers like Kiri, Pavaroti, and Bocelli.

Bocelli....?? Bocelli a great like Kiri and Pavaroti? And I could tell you many more funny stories than that.

And let's not kid ourselves. The Crossover genre is very popular and its exponents are not looked down on by anyone but the opera community and purists.

Here is the AskMen sites assessment of Hayley Westenra:

"Hayley Westenra accomplished more in the four-year stretch between 2003 and 2007 than most of her contemporaries will in their entire careers. Her amazing voice has ensured her a place within the pantheon of great singers, and her drive and determination is virtually impossible to ignore."

"A place in the pantheon of great singers", may seem a little exagerated, but there are a surprising number of people out there in the real world who would agree.

The real world is a place the opera community needs desperately to try to make contact with. It is not Hayley Westenra singing 'Scarborough Fair', or doing a cover of Kate Bush's 'Wuthering Heights' that will destroy classical music; it is the fortress mentality and obnoxiously aggressive attitude of many classical purists that is likely to destroy it.

Posted by Stuart | March 3, 2008 9:05 PM


A typical il Divo review:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/04/AR2006020401231.html
-----------------------------------------------------
Il Divo: Simon Says Opera, but the Ear Says Awful

Il Divo, the vocal quartet whose new album, "Ancora," sailed to the top of the pop charts last week, says it sings popular songs in a classically inspired operatic manner.

If only.

The group's sold-out concert Friday at DAR Constitution Hall showed the group quick to hijack the accouterments of opera but possessing none of the tonal splendor and precision essential to the art. The concert was a schlocky, cloying and highly contrived display with an unvaried sound and stage act that could make any music lover turn away in embarrassment.
--------------------------------------------
That's the good bit.

The second one I found via Goggle is amusing. She cannot, it seems, be escaped:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/manchester/content/articles/2006/04/11/090406_il_divo_feature.shtml
-------------------------------------------------------
Il Divo and Hayley Westenra at the Arena - 7/10

In a strange bit of billing, Hayley Westenra did a great job in support, despite being stuck on stage with nowt but a backing track and a bit of old sheet to keep her company.

Unlike the faux lip-wobbling vibrato of pre-Henson Church, Westenra’s singing style stays true to her youth; melodies remain uncomplicated by Mariah-esque vocal trickery. Undaunted by the massive arena crowd she works the stage with real poise, speaking to the crowd with a refreshingly unaffected air of familiarity.

From traditional folk tune Scarborough Fair through to the plaintive Maori love-song Pokarekare Ana, Westenra more than held her own in front of 18,000 women who would quite happily have sat through half an hour of Slayer as long as they knew their boys were coming on next.

....

Their original tracks would be derided if they appeared as Eurovision entries for Switzerland, but strangely you get swept away with the Shirley Valentine escapism of it all. As a live show, it’s aural candyfloss – the excitement of having them there in front of you outweighs the complete and utter lack of substance.
-------------------------------------------------

PS I promise I won't post again until several others have been made.

Posted by Stuart | March 3, 2008 10:36 PM


Crikey , Stuart sure does go on and on and on and on and on .........

How someone as bland and uninteresting and unoperatic as Westenra got linked to someone as magnficient as Dame Kiri is beyond me.

Let people enjoy their 'popera' but don't hoodwink them into thinking it is the REAL thing.

Posted by pystol | March 7, 2008 7:00 AM


As I have tried to explain, Westenra is not even Popera.

It is the opera fans who keep attacking the crossover kids who make the link.

Have you an argument, Pystol, or, as usual with the classical purists, are you are just going to repeat silly insults and assertions.

What is it you want? Do you want these people to be stopped from singing?

Do you want all people to all share your own tastes? Must everyone acknowledge that opera is the supreme art form and opera singers vastly superior to all other forms of singing?

Millions of people worldwide prefer what you call "bland, uninteresting, and unoperatic (thank God for that).

The real thing? No one has claimed Westenra is an opera singer, so the attack on her was shear spite and jealousy. Deny to you are blue in the face, you can't alter the truth. No one could possibly mistake Westenra's type of music for opera. Opera is laboured, tortured, and aesthetically ugly. Dame Kiri and her ilk sound like a cats with their tails being twisted -- like wounded animals shrieking and bellowing. It's not art. On the occasions I have been dragged to opera, I had great difficulty not bursting into laughter. Opera is a good substitute for Monty Python -- from which it is often indistiguishable, but it isn't art. Please don't insult the public by claiming it is.

You people seem to have the mentality of 3-year-old bullies. You repeatedly attack westenra, Jenkins, etc, because you think those who stick up for them must be great fans, and you evidently want to hurt their feelings. Very strange.

And you repeat that Te Kanawa is "magnificent". LOL! Only in the opinion of a tiny number of very strange people!

Just repeat the same things over and over and they will come true Pystol!


I don't know what your problem is, or what you really want, but it is nothing to do with the crossover kids being mistaken for opera.

Just keep repeating your stupid insults and assertions. The public (the few that you reach) already think you are somewhat out of your trees, so it won't make any difference.

Thank you again for the thoughtful and penetrating observations and argument you have provided.

Remember, there is a formula to use against all pop and other inferior material. It has been used against the Beatles, The Rolling Stones and all "non-classical" singers.

1. THEY USE MICROPHONES, UNLIKE THE GREAT AND MAGNIFICENT OPERA SINGERS WHO DON'T!

2. THEY NEVER LAST, AND ARE FAKES!

3. OPERA SINGERS ARE UP THERE IN THE REALMS OF GOLD IMMEASURIBLY SUPERIOR TO MERE MORTALS.

LOL!

And do make sure when you say that these people only last 2 or 3 years that you name someone who has already lasted 10 years and is going from strength to strength! LOL!

Bye.

Posted by Stuart | March 8, 2008 1:34 AM


I should have said, ' let people enjoy their mediocrity' rather than 'popera'. They should create a special musical class for all the bland mediocrities so that we don't confuse them with the real talent.

Posted by pystol | March 8, 2008 3:51 AM


Let's see if Westenblah is still around in 40 years time. You do go on Stuart - on and on and on -about nothing much really.

Posted by pystol | March 12, 2008 6:56 AM