Truth Or Snobbery?

Steve Silverman today lets rip in The Daily Telegraph on the subject of British classical/crossover singer Katherine Jenkins, in a very amusing and persuasive tirade:

For those without the time or inclination to click the link, I can assure you that the article’s title – “Katherine Jenkins hasn’t got the voice or the technique to sing opera, so why does she pretend that she can?” is about the kindest line in the whole thing.

Silverman takes objection both to Jenkins’ niche in the market (classical-sounding music rendered with heavy studio effects, and pop ballads sung in Italian to add gravitas) and to what he considers to be her outrageous claims to be be a “classical singer”.

He writes:

“As it happens, I would be surprised if anybody were actually to begrudge Jenkins the fame and wealth she has acquired from her career as a crossover artist. As a performer of middle-of-the-road ballads and pop songs (often translated into Italian for added gravitas) delivered in an innocuous pseudo-classical voice, she is inoffensive and even preferable to many who ply their trade in this section of the market. It is in allowing herself to be promoted as an opera singer that she has earned the scorn of those who care deeply about that particular art form.”

And goes on to say:

“Opera singers are unique among those who have made their careers in the performing arts. They study for many years in pursuit of developing voices that are beautiful, resonant and seamless across a range that can be more than twice that of any other type of singer in Western music. They learn how to use their instruments to convey, in at least four different languages, every possible emotion that a human being can feel. And the miraculous thing is that, without the aid of any electronic amplification, they do all of this over the top of a large orchestra in spaces big enough to hold thousands of people. As if that were not sufficiently remarkable, they also create fully-rounded and widely varying characters during evenings that last for several hours, often while wearing uncomfortable costumes and negotiating their way around awkward sets.”

This latter point is very true. To attend a really good operatic performance is to be amazed at the technical skill of the performers, in their ability to master their voices in such a way that makes people like me (far better suited to belting out semi-in-tune songs during pub karaoke nights) sit and listen in open-mouthed amazement.

Silverman offers an excellent compare-and-contrast of two performances of the same area – “Una voce poca fa”, from The Barber Of Seville – one by Jenkins, and another by Elīna Garanča.

First the Jenkins:


And then the Garanča:


There is no comparison between the two. One (the Jenkins) is a heavily muffled and amplified performance betraying a weak and untrained voice that is totally unequipped for the demands of the piece, and the other (the Garanča) is…well, the polar opposite of that.

Mean as it sounds, Silverman is not wrong when he writes of the Jenkins performance:

“This is a ferociously difficult piece that shows off the technique of a good singer, and shows up that of a bad one. It is immediately obvious which category she falls into, as the demands of the aria elicit from her the response of a deer in the headlights. The rapid runs are beyond her, with notes being either smudged together until they are indistinguishable from one another or omitted entirely; she repeatedly loses her support and vocal placement; and the two terrified screams at the end that pass for high Bs are less at home in the theatre than they would be on a labour ward.”


Which I suppose brings me to the point of this piece: I find myself thoroughly in agreement with the premise of Steve Silverman’s article. And probably like many other classical music fans, I feel a slight sense of shame in admitting it. Why? At least partly because of the “snob” factor that hangs around the neck of the classical music and opera worlds like an albatross. The “you just want to keep classical music the exclusive preserve of you and your Waitrose/Whole Foods-shopping middle class friends and hate the idea that it be dumbed down in any way for the masses to enjoy” argument that is often brought to bear against people who push back at crossover’s claims on legitimacy in the world of classical music.

This argument is wrong. Well, aside from the second part. I shop at Asda, the UK subsidiary of Wal-Mart these days. And I want everyone to be given the opportunity to enjoy classical music (as I wrote in a previous blog post, I became a Patron of the London Symphony Orchestra several years ago to help support this very objective), though of course many people freely choose not to listen to it. But I do hate for classical music to be dumbed down. And while I believe crossover artists such as Jenkins have every right to do their thing, and to become rich and successful in the process, I don’t believe that they deserve to be compared to those musicians who take the time and the effort to truly master their instruments in order to do justice to the music as it was written, and not as it was dumbed-down and cheesily reorchestrated by the writers of such TV reality shows as “Popstar to Operastar”.

I used to receive Classic FM TV as part of my Sky TV subscription. God knows why I ever watched it, but I sometimes would, sitting through endless hours of Jenkins-genre performers belting out well-known arias, often with a synthesised orchestra and a gentle drum rhythm in the background (gotta have a drumbeat these days, what was Verdi thinking forgetting to include a lively drum kit solo in the middle of “Gia nella notte densa”?!) in place of the original orchestration, waiting for the rare occasion when a performance by a “serious, classically trained” musician that I liked would come on. Looking back at it now, I’m glad that someone recently threw a stone at my satellite dish, knocking it out of alignment, so that I can no longer view this channel even if I lost my mind and attempted to do so again.

At this point, a disclaimer is necessary: I am in no way a classical music traditionalist. My favourite classical musician is the late pianist Glenn Gould, who was about as unconventional as they come in terms of many of his interpretations of the major piano repertoire. Glenn Gould was, for a time, the most famous classical pianist in the world, particularly lauded for his recordings of Bach’s keyboard music, which (if you compare them to older recordings) are revolutionary and sound as though someone has flung open the windows to a dark, stuffy room that has been locked shut for years, allowing new light to shine in for the first time in centuries. Many fine Gould performances are easily searchable on YouTube, and I encourage those unfamiliar with him to look. The difference between the Glenn Goulds of the world and the Katherine Jenkinses is that legitimate classical music “superstars” achieve their fame by illuminating the music, combining ‘mere’ technical mastery (which abounds in the graduates of many of the best music conservatoires) with another, hard to define quality, the ability to shed new light on a well-known piece, or to bring a fresh perspective and interpretation to bear on their chosen repertoire. The pretenders cloud the music rather than illuminating it, hiding either the composer’s original intentions, or just the true complexity and beauty of the music.

For this reason, I also happen to believe that to some extent the success of the crossover genre may be actively preventing rather than encouraging people to learn more about classical music, providing the newly curious with a reassuring set of water wings (armbands), enabling them to float comfortably in the shallow children’s pool of pseudo-classical music rather than discovering the riches and intellectual and emotional pleasures that can be found in the olympic-sized pool of the entire classical repertory. I’m not saying shut it down, or that crossover artists are evil – as this blog makes clear, I am a firm believer in the free market. Let’s just call it a significant negative externality.

So my Springer’s Final Thought for this post: Good luck to Katherine Jenkins and those many others in her genre. Jenkins seems to have a huge chip on her shoulder about not being taken seriously, which is a shame. Because she should be taken seriously and afforded all due respect, in the genre in which she operates. It’s just that this genre is not classical music. And when she (and others) try to perpetrate the story that they are in any way equivalent to classically trained musicians, unfairly looked down upon by the elite because of their good looks and material success, they simultaneously misrepresent themselves to the public, and do a great disservice to those countless musicians who are infinitely more talented, many of whom will work in obscurity and poverty for much of their careers, in service to their art.

3 thoughts on “Truth Or Snobbery?

  1. Kimberly June 18, 2015 / 4:26 AM

    “Jenkins seems to have a huge chip on her shoulder about not being taken seriously, which is a shame.”

    And there may it always stay.

    “And when she (and others) try to perpetrate the story that they are in any way equivalent to classically trained musicians, unfairly looked down upon by the elite because of their good looks and material success…”

    Katherine Jenkins…her only talent, to give both blondes and ‘opera singers’ a bad name.


  2. zoyuxi October 20, 2013 / 4:09 AM

    What do you think of symphonic metal/rock singers like Tarja Turunen, Sharon den Adel, and Simone Simons? Their genres could technically be considered classical crossover as well, the difference is that they cross over classical with metal/rock rather than pop.It seems they get less criticism from opera fans/singers bc their bands are first and foremost called metal/rock bands, and bc they receive far less attention than pop/opera crossover artists, so they’re not even on a lot of peoples’ radar.


  3. Barry March 20, 2012 / 9:01 AM

    Fair comments – from both you and Steve Silverman.

    It’s an unfortunate fact of life that, so far as classical music, and opera in particular, are concerned, words like “snob” “class” “elitist” and “toff” are never far away – a sort of musical Godwin’s Law applies.

    I’ve preferred classical music for 45 years but, for most of that time, I’ve been surrounded by people who are indifferent or, very occasionally, rudely hostile. I’ve learned however that there is nothing to be gained by being apologetic about my tastes in life. A lot of hostility and cynicism is based on ignorance and this can often be undermined by having a few facts at one’s fingertips. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve explained that there is absolutely no dress code at the ROH, and some opera singers are from very modest backgrounds (eg Thomas Allen). A few years ago, I had a useful statistic showing that sales of tickets for performing arts events outsold football matches. Haven’t been able to find an updated version, unfortunately.


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