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Britain's ‘Opera Babes’ on World Cup high


Posted: Jun 14, 2002 at 1405 hrs IST

They are the new pin-ups of British opera. Young and beautiful, wearing jeans and T-shirts, and dashing from photo-shoots to recording sessions, Karen England and Rebecca Knight look more like pop stars than classical singers. Yet despite sneers from the music establishment, the "Opera Babes" are proving more than just figures and faces—their album is No. 1 in the Classical Chart and its hit tune is heard by millions watching World Cup TV coverage in Britain every day.

"It's a weird stereotype that opera singers don't look good, that you can't be thin, you have to be fat and old to do opera," Knight, 32, told Reuters late on Thursday, the duo's 14th in a queue of 20 interviews that day. "People think that just because we're good-looking or dress in a modern way, obviously we can't sing. What kind of judgment is that?" added England, 28, as a taxi rushed the duo to a London music studio. Discovered last year busking in London's Covent Garden piazza, just behind The Royal Opera House, the "Opera Babes" have enjoyed rapid success.

They are part of a wider "cross-over" phenomenon in the British arts scene that has purists decrying a dumbing down of classical music. One such traditionalist is Sir Thomas Allen, an acclaimed baritone and one of Britain's leading opera singers. He said in a recent speech to the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards the commercialisation of classical music made him feel physically sick. "We kow-tow more and more to the mass appeal which seems to be the order of the day. We have undoubtedly become a civilisation in rapid cultural decline," he said, singling out for disgust "the idea of a wet T-shirted quartet".


He clearly had in mind artists like string quartet "Bond", who appear nude on their album sleeve and perform in skimpy tops, or violinist Vanessa Mae, who has appeared in a wet T-shirt. He may also have been thinking of the "Opera Babes". Such "crossover" groups produce an up-tempo classical music—sometimes fused with pop or experimental elements—and project a slick modern image that is the antithesis of the old-fashioned, elitist aura of opera. England, a mezzo-soprano, and Knight, a soprano, laughed off Allen's comments, saying their album, "Beyond Imagination", had not even been released before his public outburst.

Whilst recognising they benefit from their image, the classically-trained duo defended the seriousness of their music and said they were pioneers of opening opera to a mass audience. "Our music is very respectful to the traditional art form as well as injecting a bit of new stuff in here and there," England said. "Opera is a very difficult art form .. We've trained hard, we've really worked at it and we keep our integrity." "The music means too much to us to just stick any old beat behind it simply to make it commercial," Knight added.

Later this month, the "Opera Babes" will release as a single the album cover tune "Un Bel Di" (One Fine Day) -- an aria from Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" given an Oriental twist with accompaniment from kodo drummers.

The song has been the theme tune for British channel ITV's coverage of the World Cup, bringing it to millions of homes which would otherwise seldom hear opera music.

That has echoed Luciano Pavarotti's version of "Nessum Dorma" which was a massive hit in Britain—and boosted his career—as the BBC's theme music to the 1990 World Cup.

"It's almost too much to take in... It's lovely in a weird sort of way," Knight said of the World Cup tune and the album's success.

The "Opera Babes" now hope to launch the album in the United States, Italy and France. And they are ready to fight critics all the way. "Last night, all the bloke (interviewer) wanted to talk about was tits, I mean, it's just like, what's that got to go with the fact that we've done an operatic album?" England said. "We just want to make beautiful music," added Knight. "Forget your preconceptions and just listen to us!"

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