Who says opera stars can't swing with pop? Soprano Jathleen Battle is only the latest singer to overturn stereotype.

November 26, 1995|By Glenn McNatt

WHEN WORLD-REnowned soprano Kathleen Battle gave her first recital in Baltimore, the city was mired in ice so thick one risked life and limb merely to walk on the sidewalks. Yet nobody who had a ticket stayed home because of the weather. There wasn't an empty seat at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall that night.

Question: If people will travel through snow and sleet to hear Ms. Battle perform two hours worth of 100-year-old tunes sung in incomprehensible German, French and Italian, what might they do were the diva to sing pop songs in English?

Answer: If they are not hopeless art snobs, they will love it.

Ms. Battle, who appears on the cover of her new pop album "So Many Stars" in something so filmy and flimsy Madonna might envy it, isn't the only operatic diva to overturn the stereotype of the fat lady in bronze corsets and helmet. Sopranos Barbara Hendricks and Wilhemina Fernandez have recorded albums of Gershwin and Duke Ellington -- though wearing more traditional gowns -- and even the show tunes of Jerome Kern sung by Wagnerian mezzo Eileen Farrell have recently been re-released on compact disc.

No one expects Pavarotti to do gangsta rap anytime soon (though he's done practically everything else), but I think all music benefits from the kind of cross-pollination that occurs when classical artists occasionally sing pop and -- more rarely -- pop artists (Bobby McFerrin and Ramsey Lewis come to mind) stray into the classics.

Musical purists (another word for "snobs") can be expected to turn up their noses at such fare. It's not just pretension, either: The music industry goes to great lengths to market particular artists to particular audiences, and pop and classical music critics have a serious interest in protecting their turf when they insist that never the twain shall meet.

So who can blame listeners for confusing the wholly arbitrary distinctions of the record business and the critics with what players and singers actually are capable of communicating through their art? One result of this artificial bifurcation is that there are lots of devoted music lovers who honestly believe Bobby McFerrin can't "really" do Bach, or that Ms. Hendricks doesn't sing the blues.

The "serious" classical music critics, for example, have generally ignored Ms. Battle's excursion into pop. Yet I find it refreshing. If nothing else it may encourage a deeper appreciation of the much-maligned genre called "progressive jazz."

Ms. Battle calls the songs on her album a collection of "love songs, lullabies and spirituals." But the whole effort is couched in the musical idiom of progressive jazz, as evidenced by the musicians Ms. Battle has chosen to accompany her, led by Grover Washington Jr. and Cyrus Chestnut. Their inspiration is drawn from traditional American and Latin-American folk songs, but the sound is sweet and sexy, and the numbers are performed with terrific elan by the backup musicians.

"So Many Stars" is just the kind of confection that "purists" of both classical and jazz love to hate. The sad part is that they hate it not because this isn't terrific music, but because they have been convinced by critics and ad companies that it's not the music cultivated people ought to like.

At some point though, one has to ask how many more recordings of Bellini arias the world really needs. Ms. Battle is one of the superstars of the classical music world, whose innumerable recordings of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Schubert and Strauss have won her a global following. She recently recorded a much-praised cycle of art songs for the Deutsche-Grammophone label called "Honey and Rue," with music by Andre Previn and lyrics by Tony Morrison. It's wonderful contemporary "classical" music, and it's got plenty of snob appeal. But it's just not the sort of thing one puts on when you feel like snuggling up to your honey.

And classical purists aren't the only snobs. Many jazz lovers think of "progressive jazz" as a kind of musical oxymoron, a marriage of the most superficial elements of pop and jazz. For them, "progressive jazz" bears about the same relationship to jazz as "light" rock does to rock -- the sort of stuff that's only really useful in elevators and doctors' waiting rooms.

There's no law saying "progressive jazz," or any other popular genre, has to be superficial, though. There's a long tradition of opera stars singing pop that goes back at least as far as Caruso. Meanwhile the hippest of the hip -- from Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock to Bradford Marsalis and Keith Jarrett -- all have expressed themselves through the "progressive" idiom or some such at one time or another.

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