(Published at The Telegraph’s blogs website on March 19th, 2012)
In a blogpost that I wrote last week in the aftermath of Katherine Jenkins’ hysterical response to being parodied on Twitter, I asked why she attracts this kind of attention, and what drives a sane person to spend time and energy in the creation of an online persona for the sole purpose of rubbing her up the wrong way. Come to think of it, why have I invested three thousand words in the space of seven days in explaining why she fully deserves the contempt she receives from both those who earn their wages in the world of opera, and those who spend their money watching them? No doubt Jenkins, her fans and her best friend, the Daily Mail, would prefer to believe that I am obsessed with her. An elitist snob who is envious of her success. Probably a recluse. With lank hair and eczema. And an incriminating bag of sweets.
As it happens, I would be surprised if anybody actually begrudged 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 with 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 love and care deeply about that particular art form.
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 large 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. Throughout all of this they have to retain the beauty of their voices and the integrity of their techniques. Katherine Jenkins delivers bland, undifferentiated performances of popular tunes from well-known operas. She does this with the aid of a microphone and huge dollops of reverb to mask the flaws in her technique and to smooth out the unevenness in her voice. She also wears low-cut dresses, so that’s alright then..
Have a listen to this performance of Jenkins singing “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville. Not all of it though. God, no. That would be unnecessarily masochistic of you. The final minute and a half will suffice. 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 Welsh 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.
(ANORAK ALERT. For those who like to get into technicalities, it sounds to me as though Jenkins’ problems stem from the manufactured, plummy tone she employs in an attempt to sound more “operatic”. This adds so much artificial weight to the voice that it precludes the possibility of it acquiring either agility or ease at the top of its range. It would be interesting to know what others think of this analysis, so don’t be shy of using the comments box at the bottom of the page. ALL CLEAR.)
It is utterly mystifying that she would wilfully undertake something for public consumption that she must know is well beyond her reach. Especially when there are so many pop ballads waiting to be translated into Italian, which she could manage without traumatising any members of the audience whose critical faculties have not been turned to mush by her siren beauty. Ah, her beauty, there’s the rub. Where else can you hear this sort of material sung by a pretty, slim, young blonde? Well, how about here for a start?
Elīna Garanča’s version of the same aria has everything and more that is missing in Jenkins’ car crash. I would listen to the whole performance this time if I were you, not just the final ninety seconds. What’s more (and yes, I know that these things are subjective) I would venture to suggest that Ms Garanča’s beauty is of a far less … ahem … synthetic kind than young Katherine’s. At this point in the proceedings I’m really struggling to identify the Welsh warbler’s USP.
To be fair to Jenkins (and at this juncture, that’s not an intuitive thing to do) she has made a point of saying that she refers to herself as a classical singer, given that she has never performed an entire opera. And that’s about all the slack she deserves to be cut, because the technical requirements for a classical singer are pretty much the same as for an opera singer. The main difference is that the former gets to avoid being ordered to do undignified things on stage by power-crazy directors who believe they have more insight into The Marriage of Figaro than Mozart. In fact, classical singers often specialise in a genre that can be an even tougher nut to crack than opera: the art song. (Having allowed the idea of a Jenkins Frauenliebe und Leben to permeate my consciousness, there will now be a short break while I lie down in a darkened room.)
Whatever semantic games she chooses to play with her job title, it is pretty clear that Jenkins wants to be thought of as someone who can hold her own with the big boys. A few years ago she was resolute in her determination to perform an opera in its entirety, but not for a couple of years because, and I paraphrase, “you can’t sing full operas until you are thirty.” Somebody really should pass on this nugget of wisdom to the many excellent singers in their twenties who, at the start of their careers, are already delivering full performances with small companies. Anyway, now that the magic age at which all things suddenly become possible is is in her rearview mirror, Jenkins is still saying, as recently as her appearance ten days ago on Something For The Weekend, that the voice won’t be ready for another one or two years. It is hard to tell whether she is dishonest or delusional. It is, however, painfully clear that no opera house with an international reputation is going to think for a millisecond about casting her in anything. Ever. In the unlikely event that she were prepared, in the interests of becoming the genuine article, to lower her sights and start at the bottom of the ladder, not even the smallest provincial company would be likely to take a punt on her. It would be akin to entering Muffin the Mule into the Grand National, or signing Ann Widdecombe to dance Giselle. The only possible scenario is that she will turn up at some point in an arena-based spectacular, complete with head-mikes and an unknown supporting cast that changes every other night. If that is the extent of her ambition, then fair enough, but let’s recognise it for what it is. Operatic credibility is never to be hers it seems. At least Jenkins’ brutal self-awareness affords her some insight into why she is thwarted:
“I’ve always faced prejudice. I’m a working-class girl from Wales. I have blonde hair and wear pretty dresses. There are a lot of people in the classical music world who absolutely loathe me. The critics slate me because I’m not what they consider the real thing. People expect a classical singer to be big and fat with Wagnerian horns on her head. Sorry, that’s not me. It never was and I always knew my looks would be my advantage. I’m totally aware of how to market myself, totally aware of the effect of the way I look. And personally I’d rather see an attractive man playing Romeo than a big fat old man. Why can’t opera singers look good? I don’t get it.”
So, nothing at all to do with lacking the required skills then. In Kathworld, the reason she is not being hired is that she is too beautiful for the ugly business of professional opera. In spouting this nonsense, she deliberately and self-servingly perpetuates the stale stereotype of the risibly grotesque diva or divo who is devoid of any ability to act convincingly. Clearly she has never heard of Anna Netrebko, Danielle de Niese, Elina Garanca, Juan Diego Florez, Jonas Kaufmann, Dimitri Hvorostovsky, or any of a multitude of glamorous singers currently before the public, who possess vocal and dramatic gifts beyond her wildest imaginings. Or maybe she has. Could it be that she is mendaciously misrepresenting a business whose doors are closed to her in order to justify her own failure? Perish the thought.
The final straw for most people, I suspect, was her appearance in two series of Popstar To Operastar, the reality TV show that does exactly what it says on the tin. I have seen Dali paintings that are less surreal than Jenkins’ assumption of the role of operatic guru to a grisly selection of washed up pop singers trying their hand at a spot of Verdi. She might have gotten away with it as most opera aficionados wouldn’t have bothered switching on had it not been for presence of a second mentor on the programme: Rolando Villazon, a genuine operatic superstar who has sung challenging roles in every major opera house. This did not faze our Kath one jot. Adopting the stance of Villazon’s peer, she bulldozed her way though episode after episode, dispensing expert advice on a range of technical challenges that she is herself incapable of executing. The absolute nadir took place when the show’s host, in discussion with the pair of them, directed a question at Jenkins that began with the words “As an expert on opera …” Had she an ounce of shame, she would have said:
“Not me, you fool. Ask the hyperactive Mexican with the big hair and eyebrows,” but the irony was clearly lost on her. God only knows what Villazon was thinking at that point. Examples of her chutzpah abound in the clip below, but trust me, you really don’t want to click on it.
So, no, the scorn directed at Katherine Jenkins by opera professionals and opera lovers has nothing to do with obsession, envy or elitism. They just feel very, very insulted by a woman whose talent is as small as the chip on her shoulder is large, and who enriches herself by vandalising this most complex and demanding of the performing arts; one that, contrary to what she would like to believe, has its adherents in almost all sections of society. They are offended by the way she misrepresents opera and the people who work within it in order to shore up her own ego. They hate the way her amateurish attempts at the repertoire create, for those who know no better, a fourth-rate understanding of what opera actually is. They are outraged at the kick in the teeth that every ineptly-performed aria represents to singers who are infinitely more talented than she yet who will struggle financially for most of their working lives. They are saddened that society’s obsession with superficial celebrity permits such a triumph of style over substance.
Is it not ironic that the woman bleating in the tabloid press about being bullied via a fake Twitter account is, when all is said and done, the biggest fake of all?
(Chris Gillett in his blog, Saddo Abroad, writes eloquently on this from the perspective of a professional opera singer.)