Global Economics

Sexy Divas Boosting Classical Music Biz


Classical music sales have risen 11.7% since 2003 thanks in part to the popularity of Russia's Anna Netrebko and other female vocalists

Since Russian singer Anna Netrebko appeared on the scene, cash registers are finally ringing again in the classical music industry. Record companies are pushing a steady stream of new female vocalists -- but being a diva nowadays requires much more than just talent.

The list of requirements sounds daunting: slim as a model, sexy as a pop star and blessed with a magical voice capable of beguiling the masses. Think Kate Moss meets Christina Aguilera and Maria Callas.

After stagnating for years, the classical recording industry is suddenly experiencing a new boom; sales of classical music have increased by 11.7 percent since 2003, while the overall recording industry declined by 7.4 percent.

And the market has rediscoved an appetite for divas. The lucky few who fulfill the above criteria stand a solid chance of being built up by the record industry as stars for the 21st century.

The upswing was triggered by Anna Netrebko, an attractive Russian soprano from St. Petersburg. In her role as Donna Anna in Mozart's "Don Giovanni" at the 2002 Salzburg Festival, not only did she manage to thrill the audience and critics alike, but she was also lucky enough to be discovered by record company Deutsche Grammophon -- who recognized just how marketable the young singer was.

Since then Netrebko, 35, has been as omnipresent in the media as Paris Hilton and almost more successful than Russian energy conglomerate Gazprom. Her record sales have already reached the 1 million mark in Germany alone. (By comparison, a classical musician who does particularly well is unlikely to sell more than 25,000 albums a year.)

THE SOPRANO PRODUCTION LINE

Where there money to be made, copycat products are inevitable -- in this respect, marketing classical music is no different from selling cars or television programs. To keep up with demand, the industry is constantly unveiling new talent in the form of recordings by attractive female singers.

Deutsche Grammophon's competitor Sony, for example, is busy developing its hottest new property, the 35-year-old Serbian Baroque specialist Marijana Mijanovic. They have entered her into the diva race with a new CD titled "Affetti Barocchi," a collection of Handel arias the composer wrote for his favorite castrato, Senesino. As androgynous as she is thrilling, Mijanovic manages to make the daring pieces her own with her sensuous alto voice.

Deutsche Grammophon even has a sort of understudy for its main star, Netrebko. The label recently launched Elina Garanca, 30, a blonde Latvian singer, with a debut album of relatively unknown songs titled "Aria Cantilena." Critics have consistently praised Garanca, both for the album and her live appearances.

Meanwhile Deutsche Grammophon's sister company Decca is serving up American soprano Nicole Cabell, 29, whose repertoire could best be characterized as a pleasant operatic potpourri. The title of the album is, simply "Nicole Cabell -- Soprano."

All three Netrebko knock-offs are being marketed by their labels with the usual superlative-stuffed quotes culled from well- and less well-known publications. Cabell offers a voice of "liquid gold," Garanca is a "vocal star" and Mijanovic is, hands-down, the "heroine of the evening."

But as gushing as their ad campaigns may be, there is one thing all of these singers, including Anna Netrebko, have in common: they are precisely the opposite of the divas of the old school. These young women are slim, affable, professional and happy to go along with just about any marketing strategy.

According to scholar and culture expert Elisabeth Bronfen, the divas of the past were mythical beings, "divine" yet "damaged," a convergence of "heaven and hell."

The modern diva, on the other hand, is contemporary, market-oriented and literally radiates fitness and good health. She embodies the glamorous ideal audiences want today: sexy, not too mysterious, superficially appealing but also offering a certain something. Overweight prima donnas, who seem to float on some elite, artistic cloud and are associated by the public with petty quarrels with the tabloids, are unmarketable today. Indeed, it would be inconceivable for the 74-year-old soprano Montserrat Caballé, as grandiose as she is magnificent, and in the business for the past five decades, to receive a record contract today.

PART 2: BORROWING TRICKS FROM THE POP WORLD

Daniela Majer from Sony Germany is painfully direct: "These days, nobody wants to see a matron standing in front of a piano who folds her hands together like a Madonna, sings her songs and then trundles her way off the stage again." Instead, says Majer, the industry needs "young artists for young audiences." Some of those young stars include pianist Martin Stadtfeld, violinist Hilary Hahn and, of course, representing the singing profession, "la Netrebko." Naturally, marketing these young talents using yesterday's methods would hit the wrong note.

Per Hauber, 29, a product manager at Universal in Berlin, the parent company of Deutsche Grammophon and Decca, admits having "borrowed certain strategies from colleagues in the pop world." His industry has learned from its failings. Until a few years ago, for example, it was quite common for an artist to sing his or her new repertoire on tour, and yet the same repertoire was not yet available on the artist's albums.

That would be "unthinkable" today, says Sony's Majer. The product isn't advertised until it is available, ideally accompanied by tours, television ad campaigns, newspaper interviews and talk show appearances. The thinking today is that anything one hears at a concert ought to be available in stores at the same time.

This interlocking system of aggressive supply and constantly generated demand has worked extremely well for Netrebko, who currently has six of her titles on SPIEGEL's classical music top 20 album chart. Her latest effort, "Duets," recorded with her frequent collaborator Rolando Villazón, a Mexican tenor, has managed to garner the third-place slot on the German album charts, just behind Canadian siren Nelly Furtado and German rock star Herbert Grönemeyer. Netrebko may not be making as much money as these two, but she is certainly catching up. According to insiders, her annual income runs into the seven figures, advertising included.

ENDURING STARS

Despite all the hype, opera remains high culture. It requires skill and the ability to grow into new roles and styles. A star who lacks the ability to develop artistically will ultimately fail to hold the attention of audiences. Sold-out concerts in packed venues are only one side -- albeit the glamorous, spectacular one -- of the equation. Even megastars like Netrebko occasionally deign to appear in new productions -- and even receive "standard pay" for their efforts, according to Kirsten Harms, director of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin.

Harms is convinced that only those who embody "the great tragic roles in the opera" can become enduring superstars. These are the singers with whom audiences identify, those who "love and perish on the stage" -- Violetta in "La Traviata," Mimi in "La Bohème" or the ill-fated courtesan in "Manon." Of course, all of these roles fall within Netrebko's repertoire. Experiments are not exactly her métier.

But this also presents a problem for stars like Netrebko. Opera lovers willing to travel great distances to attend a promising premier are rarely the same people who attend the open-air concerts of these young singers with a penchant for crooning all-too-popular opera hits into the microphone.

Thus, it came as no surprise, at a recent performance of "Figaro" in Salzburg, that Christine Schäfer, whose talent had been mainly appreciated only by opera aficionados until then, received far more applause -- and rightfully so -- in the role of Cherubin than Anna Netrebko as Susanna, despite the fact that a handful of obsessive Netrebko fans had allegedly paid up to €10,000 a ticket on the black market.

But how many of these new classical stars can mass audiences handle? How many names can they remember?

Maren Borchers, who runs a Berlin promotional firm for classical artists, believes that there is "room for only one opera couple on (German talk show host) Thomas Gottschalk's couch." And that couple, at least at the moment, is Anna Netrebko and Roland Villazón.

Even the major opera houses had their own ensembles in which stars could mature and grow from small roles into bigger ones, from the lyric to the heroic. In those days, artists had to prove themselves on the stage before they could expect to be offered recording contracts. Nowadays, says Alward, it's "practically the other way around."

Now opera houses are garnishing their productions with traveling stars, jacking up ticket prices and benefiting from the hype surrounding the prima donnas. Deutsche Oper director Kirsten Harms, who has both Nicole Cabell and Anna Netrebko under contract, readily admits: "We could certainly have more Netrebkos, as far as I'm concerned."

But whether Netrebko and others like her will be able to build long-term careers is up for debate. The carousel of names is spinning too quickly and audiences' attention spans are too short to be devoted to any one singer for long, even the superstars.

Seen in this light, singers were better off in the last century. Austrian soprano Leonie Rysanek, who was born in 1926, for example, was a celebrated star on every major opera stage throughout her 45-year career, until she retired -- voluntarily -- at the age of 70. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, born in 1925, was a world-class singer for just as long, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, (1915 - 2006), was worshiped as an icon for more than 30 years. The incomparable Lotte Lehmann (1888 - 1976) continued to give moving performances of Schumann's song cycle "Frauenliebe und -leben" when she was in her 50s.

Anna Netrebko apparently has no plans, at least at present, to turn her attention to the less dramatic -- and more difficult -- Lieder form. Instead, she will continue to celebrate opera in its grandest form, with the highest professionalism -- and earnings.

HOT BUT ROOTLESS

How long will the hype last? Experts are skeptical. Peter Alward, a former president of EMI Classics, takes a critical view of this development. "These artists make me think of hothouse plants," he says. "They're grown quickly, but they have practically no roots."

According to Alward, in the middle of the last century, when the record industry began producing LPs and the market for classical music was booming, artists could still "make their mistakes in smaller venues and not too many people would notice, at least not right away."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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