Singing against a backdrop of controversy

Will these Tenors be ruled real deal?

March 04, 2004|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

When the African-American singing group Three Mo' Tenors takes the stage tonight at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, there likely will be little evidence on-stage of the nasty spat off-stage that has been gobbling up time, energy and money for lawyers' fees.

A quarrel between two trios of singers and their managers became public this week. Both sides are trading accusations, insults and threats of lawsuits - all over who is entitled to call themselves Three Mo' Tenors.

"They are exploiting our success and deceiving the public with a copycat act," said Carol Kirkendall, who manages the three singers who in 2001 were the first to be called Three Mo' Tenors: Victor Trent Cook, Rodrick Dixon and Thomas Young. "We are ... concerned that our fans are being misled."

Greg Tucker, the spokesman for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, said that no fraud is involved. The symphony's Web site (www.baltimoresymphony.org) states that the Three Mo' Tenors is performing new material and has a new cast consisting of Ramone Diggs, Kenneth Gayle and Marvin Scott.

"We booked them under the understanding that they are the new Three Mo' Tenors, and that's how we are promoting them," Tucker said.

The new tenors also deny that they have been deceptive. "There definitely has been no false advertising," said the second trio's producer, Willette Klausner.

At the heart of the controversy is the question of whether it is possible to talk meaningfully about a work of art apart from a specific performance of it. In this particular case, the question is whether Three Mo' Tenors is a show like, say, Hairspray with a cast that is interchangeable at the discretion of its producers, or whether it is a group like The Beatles, which really cannot be distinguished from its specific members.

Several years ago, Broadway veteran Marion Caffey came up with the idea of showcasing African-American tenors under the name of Three Mo' Tenors (a takeoff on the more famous opera trio of tenors Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras). In 2001, Caffey enlisted Klausner and others to produce and manage the singing group.

Klausner now produces the group performing tonight at the Meyerhoff, and Caffey is the director. They claim that the concept is the key to its success.

"African-American tenors always have had to sing multiple styles, from soul to gospel to jazz to Broadway show tunes to opera," Klausner said. "The idea was to showcase their versatility, and to bring African-American tenors to the attention of the opera world. We never intended to limit the number of tenors we could use."

The original three tenors (Cook, Dixon and Young) began performing in 2001. Though the group won instant applause, relations were less harmonious among the partners managing the group.

There were disputes, Klausner said, about the usual things: hiring staff and the allocation of funds. Eventually, she asked a judge to dissolve the partnership.

With the partnership in disarray, Cook, Dixon and Young formed a relationship with the William Morris Talent Agency. They began recording a new record album, to be released by RCA and began working on a new television special - all under the name, Three Mo' Tenors.

Meanwhile, Klausner and Caffey hired a new cast (Diggs, Gayle and Scott) and began booking concert dates, also under the name Three Mo' Tenors.

That's when the trouble began.

The old tenors are incensed that Caffey and Klausner used a poster of their silhouettes to promote the new tenors. They also complain those promotional materials included critical reviews of shows actually performed by Cook, Dixon and Young.

For their part, Klausner and Caffey claim that the first trio has threatened to sue presenters and radio stations who refer to the second cast as the Three Mo' Tenors.

The whole mess will end up before New York Justice Herman Cahn, who has scheduled a trial for March 10 to determine who are the true and who are the faux Mo' Tenors.

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