Babes in Opera land

More female artists adopt the provocative moniker to stand out from the classical crowd

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

They're blonde. They're attractive. And they've got a catchy name.

It's no wonder the OperaBabes – mezzo Karen England and soprano Rebecca Knight – have sparked a fair amount of grumbling and grousing, along with publicity.

Classical crossover – highbrow artists performing pop material – still seems to make some informed listeners cross.

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Bestselling stars like Andrea Bocelli, Charlotte Church, and Russell Watson have garnered scorching reviews, while even the fabulously popular cellist Yo-Yo Ma was recently accused of sounding "trivial and unconvincing" in crossover music by New York magazine.

But even among this critically drubbed bunch, Ms. Knight and Ms. England stand out for the acidity of the commentary they've attracted. Take, for example, a recent story in the "The Independent" newspaper: "Baritone Attacks the Babes who Have Taken the Class Out of Classical Music."

At an awards ceremony of London's Royal Philharmonic Society, the distinguished British singer Sir Thomas Allen classed groups like the OperaBabes with "gimmicks and wet T-shirts and pubescence." He went on to call them "pathetic, a diminution of quality."

Harsh words for two singers who say their aim is to attract a wider and younger audience to a medium, opera, that they love. And in fact, England and Knight do not perform in T-shirts, whether wet or dry.

As for the name, the two singers, who are currently planning a United States tour for this fall, explain that they became Babes almost by chance: "The talent scout phoned us and asked, 'Are you the opera babes?' which we thought was hilarious," says Knight. "It was used for [a performance at a soccer final], and it's kind of stuck."

However, cautions England, "It's not a word we'd ever use about ourselves, and it does come up in interviews quite a lot – 'Do you consider yourselves babes?' It's just a name we were given, and we live with it. It's quite funny, really."

Nor are they the classical world's only "babes." In an effort to inspire greater interest in every type of art from medieval poetry to avant garde theater, female artists from Great Britain, the US, and Canada are all proudly waving the "Babe" banner.

A name you don't soon forget

Sometimes it's a joke. Sometimes it's a manifesto. But, say these performers, a "babe" is always memorable.

"As our violist explains, 'Some people love the name, and some people really dislike the name, but everyone remembers the name,' " says Andrea Gullickson, founder of the Bach Babes, a Wisconsin chamber ensemble.

And in the performing arts, sometimes it takes more than talent to attract attention. Just a year ago, the OperaBabes were part of the crowd of street performers or "buskers" in front of London's Covent Garden, sharing space with itinerant jugglers and mimes. Now they are on the verge of becoming international stars.

Their act is straightforward and wholesome, although clearly the mix of music they offer is not aimed at purists. Their first album "Beyond Imagination," coming out in the US this fall, contains two different versions of the aria "Un bel di" from Puccini's opera "Madama Butterfly," one with Japanese Kodo drummers and another titled "Vibe Tribe Mix." Another selection features a snippet from Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto, set to Italian lyrics as "Sempre Ricordo."

Their goal, however, as they reminded listeners during a recent performance tour of British schools, is "to make opera and classical music less intimidating," England says. "It isn't dry and academic, it's an emotional experience – it can make you laugh, cry, and all the rest!"

Other babes in the woods of the arts scene would tend to agree. They also find the somewhat provocative moniker useful in catching the public's eye, even at the risk of offending some sober-sided observers.

As with England and Knight, the Bach Babes tag "started as a joke." "Someone suggested it would be helpful to 'gather all the Bach Babes' for a discussion ... the name stuck," says Ms. Gullickson, an oboist and chair of music at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. She founded the group almost a decade ago along with members of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

"We are very serious about our musicmaking, but are constantly looking for ways to draw the audience into the spirit of the music," says Gullickson. "We try to enhance that experience with chatter ranging from information about the composer, the genre, and social-historical issues to personal insights, experiences, and, of course, humorous anecdotes.... We hope that the more casual atmosphere will help them to feel comfortable exploring classical music in a variety of settings."

A babe spelled any other way....

More babes who have won fans by combining seriousness and fun include the British group "The Mediaeval Baebes" – nine women who perform modern settings of medieval poetry, sung in Welsh, Latin, Middle English, Old French, German, and Italian. Their instruments include the recorder, dulcimer, guitar, bells, tambourine, hurdy gurdy, mandolin, and zither.

Having just finished a successful US tour, the Mediaeval Baebes often appear at rock venues, such as Lilith Fair, performing what critics have called "medieval soul music."

Last year, the Baebes were invited to perform at The British Library in London, to celebrate the acquisition of an art treasure, the Sherborne Missal, a ravishingly beautiful 15th-century illuminated manuscript.

Truth in advertising?

Perhaps the group to most defiantly proclaim its babe-dom is a much-acclaimed Toronto avant-garde theater group, Loud Mouth Asian Babes.

"Theater is not the thing a lady does. It is not 'polite.' For Asian women, this is all the more true, given the Confucist expectations of submissiveness and service to men," explains founder and artistic director Jean Yoon. "As a second-generation Korean-Canadian, struggling out of these constraints, these stereotypes, is the core of my endeavor."

Ms. Yoon is a believer in truth in advertising: "I'm a loud mouth. I say what needs to be said – loudly," she says. "I'm Asian. And I'm a babe, and so are my friends.... We're not to be messed with, and we create very smart theater."

And as with other babes in the arts, Yoon explains that her group's name has just "piqued interest and provoked a laugh now and then. Unlike some other small arts groups, people always remember who we are. And if anyone does have a problem with the name, if they are completely devoid of humor, they can stay home and watch television."

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