Good looks + opera hooks = adult boy band

Il Divo, a handsome singing quartet, has throngs of women buying their brand of 'classical crossover.'

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Ten minutes to showtime, the lobby of the concert hall near Universal Studios is a sea of red feather boas, sequined jackets, high-heeled sandals, and backless black dresses. Some women clutch plastic-covered bouquets of red roses, while others carry bags stuffed with $35 T-shirts or $15 mouse pads emblazoned with the logo of the male vocal group they are about to see. The excitement level is similar to the rare reunion of a legendary rock band or that for a Ricky Martin concert circa 1999.

It's not the type of reaction one might expect for singers trained by top conservatories and master classes. But Il Divo - the male equivalent of "diva" - is as much a boy band for grown-ups as it is a highbrow virtuoso act.

"These guys, they knock me out," gushes Rosamelia Martinez, a law student from Colombia who asked her father to pay her way to the Los Angeles concert as an early graduation present. Ms. Martinez has been hooked ever since seeing the group perform last fall on a local television channel. She immediately joined an online fan forum and discovered thousands of women who were equally dazzled by the quartet. (They call themselves "divas.")

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Following in the classical crossover footsteps of such stars as Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli, and Charlotte Church, Il Divo was created two years ago by "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell as a way to bring opera music to the masses. The genre has become so popular in recent years that Billboard magazine has added a "classical crossover" category to its charts in an effort to separate such acts from opera singers like Renée Fleming and Cecilia Bartoli.

It's not a label that pleases tenor David Habbin of Amici Forever, a Britain-based band of four young classically trained singers - two men and two women - whose hit debut album, "The Opera Band," mixed classics such as "Nessun Dorma" with pop standards like "Unchained Melody."

"It's a bit misleading because pop doesn't really describe what we do and opera doesn't really describe it either," Mr. Habbin says by telephone from London. Amici Forever's fan base, he explains, is made up of people who respond to the melodies but won't necessarily go to the opera house to hear the entire libretto in Italian. "Either they're put off by the stigma of the past or fear of the language barrier," he says, "but they can respond to it when the melodies are put in the bite-sized chunks, i.e., just one aria or one song."

Fans are also responding to the polite charm and good looks that characterize many crossover artists.

Throughout the Il Divo concert, the four band members - Spanish baritone Carlos Marin, Swiss sophisticate Urs Bühler, French pop singer Sebastien Izambard, and San Diego-born tenor David Miller - banter with one another, stare meaningfully into the crowd, and pat each other on the back without wrinkling their Armani suits.

Cowell, who was front and center at Il Divo's L.A. show last month, told a Los Angeles Times reporter that the performance was "the proudest moment of my life."

It may also be the most lucrative. The band's third album, "Ancora," debuted at No. 1 last month, followed by a sold-out world tour. A slick marketing campaign that has included performances on "Oprah" and "The Young & the Restless" helped widen their fan base. The mostly female crowd in L.A. ranges from teens in miniskirts to grandmothers in sensible slacks and turtlenecks, though the majority of women appear to be middle-aged.

While many critics spurn the quasi-opera concept - "Il Divo? Quattro fromaggi," sniffed a recent Washington Post review - some observers point out that it is introducing newcomers to a genre they wouldn't otherwise explore.

"It doesn't place classical music outside the mainstream but rather positions it as an inexhaustible fountain," says Eileen Strempel, assistant professor of music at Syracuse University in New York. Il Divo, Groban, and other crossover artists owe their popularity to their embrace of "the stadium approach to classical singing," she adds. "These are beautiful people to look at, and they have developed a stage persona that's more akin to a rock musician or a popular music star."

Outside the arena, Faith Huxley, a business owner from Santa Barbara, Calif., praises their energy. "They're highly talented young men," explains Ms. Huxley, who formed a fan group known as "The Grand Divas."

Huxley's friend, Barbara Stelmah, has another take on why so many women adore the group. "They're eye candy," she says, and disappears into the concert hall.

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