Contemporary resistance to the hybrid of low and high art:
the case study of criticisms on operatic pop
In this era of postmodernism, the distinction between “low” and “high” cultures and art has become increasingly blurred. Beginning with the pop art movement of the 1950s, artists such as Andy Warhol began the process of breaking down the barriers between high and low art. These artists pioneered the use of popular imagery in artwork; artists used comic book images, Campbell’s Soup cans, Spam, fast food, gas stations, celebrities, mass media, etc. Today, many artists continue to draw upon popular culture as a source for their imagery and artistic ideas. For example, Jeff Koons has been criticized for making art that is often described as “kitschy,” a contradiction in terms for modernists. Takasi Murakami, a Japanese postmodernist, is also well-known for combining low and high art together to create anime images, manga, high couture, and 19th century Japanese Nihon-ga paintings. Such a mixture of “low” and “high” cultures is not exceptional in the world of music. It has become more common and accepted that many classical and pop musicians cross over from their own musical genres to each other’s, often giving rise to a new hybrid genre during the process. However, although the hybrid of culture and art is now everywhere, not everyone welcomes or celebrates the hybridity of low and high art and culture. Much of the crossover or hybrid art or music still tends to be devalued and described only as “unconventional,” “experimental “or “exotic.” Further, this art often faces harsh criticism. This paper is to examine such conservative and traditional viewpoints toward hybrid art in contemporary culture using a specific case regarding the criticism of opera pop singers. I will delve into the specific case of the controversy over the popularity of Katherine Jenkins and Il Divo, musicians of a new hybrid genre of operatic pop – the mix of the musical and stylistic elements of pop music and classical opera.
Operatic pop, or popera, is a specific sub-genre of classical crossover, a hybrid genre that hovers between classical and popular music, targeted at fans of both types of music. It refers to both classically trained opera singers who sing popular songs, show tunes, or holiday songs as well as pop stars who sing pop songs in an operatic singing style. This new genre was first developed by Kimera, a South Korean-born singer trained in classical opera singing, via her debut single “The Lost Opera” (1985), which consisted of a medley of opera arias set to a mid-80’s form of disco and High N-R-G beats (Wikipedia). Since then, operatic pop, as well as other types of classical crossover genres, has become very popular. Following the success of Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli’s “Time To Say Goodbye,” pop singers who were not originally trained in classical opera singing, including Charlotte Church and Russell Watson, started flooding the classical charts and official classical awards ceremonies.
Katherine Jenkins is a popular Welsh operatic pop singer who performs across a spectrum of operatic arias, popular songs, musical theatre, and hymns. She was educated and began her singing career in choirs and TV show programs, rather than in the field of classical opera. Six out of seven of her albums reached number one on the UK classical charts between 2004 and 2008, and she sold more than 4 million albums (Wikipedia). After her first album, Premiere, she became the first British classical crossover artist to have two number-one albums in the same year (Wikipedia).
Habanera from Carmen by Jenkins: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d04XDEXognk
Habanera from Carmen by a Classical opera singer, Elina Garanca: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGFUKsv1epk
Bruno Mars’ Talking to the Moon by Jenkins: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T1c3gIXWjJo
Il Divo is an English multinational operatic pop vocal group created by music manager Simon Cowell. The group consists of French pop singer Sébastien Izambard, Spanish baritone Carlos Marín, American tenor David Miller, and Swiss tenor Urs Bühler. To date, they have sold more than 26 million albums worldwide (Wikipedia).
My Way by Il Divo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9oA_zJafRo
Essentialism and elitism in the genre of classical opera singing
One of Jenkins’ most commonly heard criticisms has to do with her lack of “authenticity,” or operatic quality in her voice (Muldowney, 2011). According to a number of critics, without operatic authenticity, operatic pop cannot be considered operatic or called a hybrid with opera (Muldowney, 2011). Indeed, the issue of inauthenticity in art has been addressed in almost every discussion or criticism on any postmodern hybrid genre of art; this undeniably reflects essentialist notions of artistic value of art and music. As in philosophy, politics, sociology, and other types of art, essentialism in music refers to the idea that anything has a certain quality to it, or an essence that exists (Swonson, 2010). It is by this very essence – or by having these certain qualities – that a piece of music can be classified as being part of a specific genre of music. In other words, if a certain piece of music does not possess these qualities, then it cannot be considered a part of that specific genre. Surely, this is one of the traditional, conservative views on art that postmodern artists have argued against as they believe that no artwork or genre of art has a fixed, essential, or permanent identity (Hall, 1996; 598).
The notion of ‘authenticity’ in the world of classical music, particularly with regard to vocal music, does not necessarily mean innate, fixed characteristics or essential quality of the genre that can be identified from an objective standard. The singing style referred to as operatic or classical singing is characterized by a greatly extended range, especially at the top of the voice, and increased volume and projection; since a voice’s capacity of projection, amplification, natural vibration, and volume is usually evaluated from the points of view of individual audience members, it is a very subjective and relative thing to determine if a voice has such capacity, operatic quality (Arizona Opera). Jenkins is often criticized for just mimicking “operatic voice” with a lack of natural vibration and comparatively short breaths compared to “real” classical singers (Hunter, 2010). According to James Hunter, a music critic, her voice “lacks depth of sound, technique and range; [she] is really just a jumped-up pop singer; she has a ‘small voice’, which means there is no power or dynamic range in the voice” (Hunter, 2010). Another critic, Steve Silverman asserts that “[she] hasn’t got the voice or the technique to sing opera” and particularly points out that her “problems stem from the manufactured, plummy tone she employs in an attempt to sound more ‘operatic’” (Silverman, 2012). Of course, since there is no objective, standardized criteria for determining whether a singer’s voice is “genuinely operatic,” such critiques and scorn regarding Jenkins are merely the subjective opinions of classical music fans. More specifically, many of the criticisms on operatic pop are based on comparisons between those singers and other typical classical singers; many classical music fans tend to look down on operatic pop just because the singers are less trained in classical opera and are regarded as less talented than classical singers (Harper-Scott, 2012). In other words, these people undervalue or do not recognize the artistic values or merits of the singers and their music just because they are thought to be relatively less than those of classical singers. As such, based on these points of view, music is what Stuart Hall identifies as “sociological subject matter” – whose identity, authenticity, and value are “formed in relation to ‘significant others’” (Hall, 1996; 597). Indeed, this perspective on musical value conflicts with the postmodernism perspective which sees art and music as “post-modern subject” whose value and identity can be assumed and interpreted freely since they are “not fixed, essential, or permanent” (Hall, 1996; 598).
The way of implying values of art or music in relation to “significant others” – classical singing in the case of evaluating that of operatic pop – is indeed the very essence of elitism in art and music which makes a clear distinction between “higher” and “lower” art forms according to their relatively assumed artistic values and/or the relative levels of the audience’s economic and social classes. It is obvious that people with such an elitist notion of hierarchical musical value find operatic pop – in which the singers from “lower music” trespass on to the “higher music” – offensive, accusing the singers of “diluting” classical opera (Plescher, 2013). Many classical music fans’ harsh criticism of Jenkins show that well; [the fans] “just feel very, very insulted by the woman whose talent is as small as the chip on her shoulder is large, and who enriches herself by vandalizing this most complex and demanding of the performing arts” (Silverman, 2012). Indeed, such criticism of Jenkins, as well as of many other operatic pop singers, for having an “inauthentic,” “non-operatic” voice reflects the contemporary essentialist and elitist view conflicting with the celebration of postmodern hybridisms in art and music.
Operatic pop as commodification, industrial production of classical opera
Authenticity or value in art from the elitist perspective does not only mean the essential quality of a certain genre of art but also “purity” of the art; high art with high value should be only for the sake of the art alone, and it should not serve other utilities or functions. This is surely another way of making a distinction between high art, “fine art,” and low art, “craft.” The “pure” aesthetic value of fine art has been devalued by many contemporary postmodern artists through commercializing not only their artwork but also existing works of “high art.” As largely driven by the goal of achieving fame and increasing profits, for example, Salvador Dali presented his work via advertisements and product displays, and Andy Warhol reproduced classical paintings as mass-produced poster prints. Basically, they tried to make art accessible to ordinary people. As Andy Warhol said, “If you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning.” Such attempts to commodify and thus popularize art ultimately intend to deconstruct the art elitist or purist notion of authenticity, essential quality of art. Indeed, in this era of postmodernism, capitalism and consumerism, the distinction between fine art and commercial art is increasingly disappearing. Frederic Jameson has noted, “aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally” (Jameson, 1991).
In the world of music, pop music is generally recognized as commercially-oriented as compared to classical music; it is primarily designed to entertain the masses and generate profits at the same time rather than to elicit musical appreciation. In between such commercial pop music and “pure” classical music, operatic pop, the hybrid of the two, is also fundamentally commercial in its nature as it is basically attempts to tailor opera music or the elements (although many classical purists insist that the “operatic” elements in operatic pop music are not operatic) to the tastes of the mainstream masses; in other words, it “commodifies” the classical opera, high, exclusive genre of music, as a mass product. While the fans of operatic pop appreciate the musicians for providing more enjoyable opera music – which is more familiar and easier to listen to than classical opera yet still has a sense of operatic grandeur – many classical purists or elitists regard the musicians’ crossover as just “branching out” to broaden their target audience, to gain more profit. Moreover, many critics point out that as the operatic pop has grown in popularity and such branching out has become more systemic and strategic, commodified products of musical industries are specifically tailored to the taste of the target audience that prefers a “lite version” of classical music (Ginsberg, 2006).
Il Divo, an English operatic pop vocal group, is among the operatic pop musicians often recognized by critics as “commercial,” with a “corporate product [whose] music originates in the corporate boardroom” (Hunter, 2006). Indeed, they are a true hybrid form of entertainment product fused with sex appeal, stage persona of the good-looking singers in tuxedos, acting (choreographed smiles and poses), film (in music videos), and publicity. As all these are “designed and manufactured” by Simon Cowell, a music producer, some harsh critics even call them “Cowell’s Muppet” (Ginsberg, 2006). Moreover, “operatic sound” in the music itself is produced by the strategically crafted structure employed in each of the songs. In fact, it is more like a formula. First, each song begins with a singer taking a couple lines on his own with choreographed facial expressions full of melancholy; this definitely comes from the intro part of popular boy band music. Then, all the singers sing together in the elevated chorus and reach to a grand operatic climax. The chorus section usually starts off with the lead of David Miller, who is acknowledged by many classical critics as the only member of the group who can project an operatic voice similar to that of “real” classical singers. All the added voices amplify and vibrate enough to sound like powerful operatic voices. Some serious critics call such mechanized production of operatic sound “canned music” and refer to this mix of pop and classical musical and stylistic elements as “putting a mini-skirt on the Mona Lisa” (Amorosi, 2009).
Operatic pop as hyberreal simulacrum of classical opera
Many classical purists’ arguments regarding the lack of authenticity and purity of operatic pop and resistance to the popularity of operatic pop ultimately reflect the concern for the prevalence of simulacra and simulation, a pessimistic view on postmodernism art, culture and society. The idea of simulacra and simulation was first proposed by Jean Baudrillard and has been further discussed and developed by many other theorists on postmodernism. In his Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson asserts that postmodernity has transformed the historical past into a series of emptied-out stylizations, pastiche, which can then be commodified and consumed. People will lose “the past as ‘referent’ finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts” (Jameson, 1991); they can no longer understand the art of past except as a repository of genres, styles, and codes ready for commodification. Based on Jameson’s perspective, simulacra is the cultural artifacts, signs, or artworks detached from the history and original meaning, or it is the copies of originals that have just been created only for the purpose of becoming mass-produced. As simulacrum have become more prevalent in our culture and society, many people have become concerned that they will threaten the differences that have existed between the ‘true’ and the ‘false’, the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’.
Many classical music purists insistence on a clear distinctions between classical opera and operatic pop – higher and lower forms of music – implies that they, in fact, perceive operatic pop not only as another new hybrid genre derived from classical opera but also as its simulacrum, which might displace it in the end. These days, not only pop musicians but also many classical opera singers, such as Renee Fleming or Su mi Cho, have become interested in the new genre, moving back and forth in both their own classical field and the pop field; they are often interchangeably called opera or popera singers. Due to the higher profitability in and growing audience preference for operatic pop, today, operatic pop can indeed be seen and heard everywhere from opera houses and concert halls to TV shows. With regard to such increasing popularity of operatic pop, the much deeper, more troubling problem for many classical purists is that operatic pop – the hybrid of pop and classical opera without the essence of the classical opera, “fake version of opera” (Ginsberg, 2006) – might eventually supersede the higher, purer classical opera, the original. According to some serious classical purist critics on Il Divo, Il Divo “highlights the dangers of the whole idea of crossover music” as they attract “more young audiences to the lite, fake version of opera,” which confuses them about what real opera is or causes them to perhaps ignore the opera (Ginsberg, 2006). This perspective regards operatic pop as a depthless, superficial simulacrum of classical opera that has the possibility of becoming truth in its own right: the hyperreal.
Although hybridity has become an increasingly widely acknowledged aesthetic and ethical standard in our culture, art, and society, some people reject it because they fear that something is lost in the blending of previously distinct traditions. In the case of the hybrid of the ‘high’ culture from traditional, classical, and privileged groups of people and popular, mainstream ‘low’ culture, many people still try to secure the alleged prestigious status and esteem of the high culture. As demonstrated in my analysis on the current resistance toward operatic pop, such efforts are presented as the residual distinctions between ‘authentic’ and ‘non-authentic’ art, fine art and entertainment or commercial art, and the real and the non-real or simulacrum. This illustrates how diverse or even opposing values, ideologies, and interests are shaping and constituting our art and cultural movements and discourses, with none of them being the absolute dominant cultural force.
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