I’ve noticed a recent upsurge in articles and blog posts by classical musicians irritated at the so-called crossover artists, usually singers, who populate the classical charts. Last week there was a minor scuffle in the New Zealand press after Hayley Westenra got a bad review from the Christchurch critic David Sell. What Sell said wasn’t particularly vicious; he mostly complained about the expense, blandness and over-amplification of the performance. I usually make a point of not reading comments on online newspaper articles, but I couldn’t help noticing a few outraged fans lamenting the “tall poppy syndrome,” a curse that’s supposed to afflict New Zealanders of talent and distinction when their less talented compatriots decide they need taking down a peg or two.
I’ve read some far more scathing reviews of the Welsh singer Katherine Jenkins (I had to Google her, since she’s more or less unknown here in America) such as this one by the blogger Steve Silverman. Jenkins gets a lot of disparagement from the classical world, and understandably. I admit to some irritation myself when the popular press refers to these kinds of singers as “classical artists” or “opera singers,” because they aren’t. Jenkins appears to have had some classical voice training but has never been in an opera, and Westenra sings like a choirgirl. Both use a lot of amplification, which classical singers don’t. Neither has the technique to project her voice over the top of an orchestra through several hours of unamplified performance in an actual opera.
And yet, it seems to me that the “opera” designation is less their fault than that of sloppy journalists who don’t seem to know what an opera is. For the uninitiated, “opera” quite possibly equates to “person singing with vibrato.” It might, at first hearing, be hard to differentiate between a trained opera singer and the determinedly girlish Westenra piping treacly arrangements of pseudo-folk songs.
Does this matter? If I’m to be charitable, I’m forced to admit that these kinds of singers make a lot of people happy. They’re manufactured to be pretty and undemanding. They earn their millions making music that they appear to like. Good for them. I don’t grudge their success.
BUT. It’s still annoying to those of us who make classical music our profession that if we take issue with the “classical” label for crossover singers, we’re immediately accused of elitism (I loathe that snotty, disingenuous word), or of being envious. The envy accusation isn’t 100% unfounded, because we’re certainly envious of the money. Most classical musicians earn extremely modest fees after years of education and hard slog, even the ones with respectable careers and reputations. But envious of the musicianship? Hardly. It grates on the nerves of the non-superstars of the profession, who take their craft extremely seriously, to see decidedly average talents praised as the top classical musicians. And I’m sorry, but Jenkins and Westenra are only averagely talented. I don’t think Jenkins is as utterly awful as some of her critics say, but I’ve met plenty of undergraduates in vocal performance who are objectively better singers than she is.
I don’t buy the “tall poppy syndrome” accusation either, since I’m a classical musician from New Zealand and have never experienced anything but encouragement and support from musical establishments and critics there. (Perhaps I’m not a tall enough poppy.)
All this said, would I trade my modest but hard-won career as a professional cellist and university professor for the chance to jet-set around the world, earning megabucks singing saccharine renditions of “Scarborough Fair” in a frilly pink gown and a bad perm? You bet I would! If only, I might add, because it would more or less alleviate the need ever again to travel on a plane with a cello.