Is there too much pop in Hayley Westenra’s popera?


If you mentioned the words
“attack” and “New Zealand” to me, I have to admit that the first
thing that would come to mind would probably be The Lord of the Rings.
But apparently the orcs and the elves aren’t the only ones who have
been attacking each other there recently. In an interview with the
New Zealand Herald’s
Canvas magazine
the internationally famous New Zealand opera singer Dame Kiri Te
has attracted attention by criticizing another internationally
famous New Zealand singer, the young pop/classical crossover artist

Hayley Westenra.

Apparently, Dame Kiri told
the interviewer, “Have you heard Hayley? She’s not in my world, she’s
never been in it at all.” She went on to criticize singers who, like
Westenra, are part of the “popera” genre, saying that “They are
all fake singers, they sing with a microphone,” and “People call
them up-and-coming, but they never last. They are the new fakes for
the new generation.”

While the comment that the
two singers are in two different worlds seems like a simple statement
of fact to me, the later words do come across as pretty harsh — and
Dame Kiri subsequently made some effort
to mitigate them
saying of the original interview that “The
questions were rather difficult and I came out of the interview thinking,
well, that’s a mess, and of course look what has turned out. They want
to sell newspapers. Follow the money, follow the money."

Nevertheless, her comments
got me thinking about what I do and don’t like about Westenra’s
performances. As an opera fan who also likes pop, easy listening and
musical theatre, I might seem like an obvious part of Westenra’s target
audience. And I can remember being absolutely knocked sideways the first
time I heard her pure, clear voice singing the Puccini aria “O mio
babbino caro.” I was in Borders at the time; the music was being played
on their sound system; and after listening till the end of the song,
I immediately went rushing off to find out who it was who had been singing:

Googling her led me to her
version of the Kate Bush classic “Wuthering Heights” — and while I don’t think there’s an artist in the world who is capable
of bringing the same sort of deranged conviction as Kate Bush to the
visual interpretation of the song, I do think that Westenra’s high,
supple, spooky voice works very well with it musically:

Her interpretation of “Wuthering
Heights” did lead me to realize something, though, which is that I
really prefer listening to Westenra to looking at her. Perhaps because
she is still so young — she will be 21 in April — she doesn’t
yet seem to have developed a powerful stage presence. Although her voice
is unfailingly lovely, she can come off as either a bit cloying, or
a bit emotionless, as in this rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” from
Les Misérables

Returning to Dame Kiri’s
original comments, I do also sometimes find that Westenra gives too
much of an overproduced, cheesy pop twist to a song I like. In this version of the simple British folk song “The
Water Is Wide,” for example, not only does she include the boy-band
staple of a key change at a crucial moment, but she also brings in
-style Irish flutes (flutes? Whistles? Pipes? More knowledgeable
people can tell me) as soon as the sea is mentioned. All of which sends
the song a little too far into corn territory for me.

So, overall, I’m ambivalent.
While I do think that young crossover singers can help to free up opera
from some of the fussiness and pomp that sometimes attach to it, I also
don’t like too much pop in my popera. What do you think? Let me know
in the comments.

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