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Sarah Brightman, an ethereal diva

Sarah Brightman is the bestselling soprano of all time and is a pioneer of classical crossover music.

Special to the Times

Sarah Brightman is the bestselling soprano of all time and is a pioneer of classical crossover music.

If Sarah Brightman had a resume aimed at impressing big business, these would be among the highlights:

• 26-million albums and 2-million DVDs sold

• 150 gold and platinum awards for record sales in 34 countries

• 6 albums ranked No. 1 on the Billboard classical crossover chart

The English lyric soprano was the original Christine, the chorus girl turned prima donna in The Phantom of the Opera, courtesy of her ex-husband, Andrew Lloyd Webber. But that was more than 20 years ago, and Brightman and Lloyd Webber have been divorced nearly as long. • So why is Brightman, now 48, such a big deal? • Her time as a musical theater ingenue was actually rather short: a stint as Jemima in Cats, a year or two in Phantom and finally Aspects of Love, another Lloyd Webber show. She earned her alimony (reportedly $10-million) from the musical theater composer-tycoon, suffering withering reviews of her performance as Christine. "Minnie Mouse on Quaaludes'' was the most memorable putdown and, for all its unfairness, not that far off the mark in describing her little-girl voice in the role. • Now, though, Brightman is the grand diva at the center of extravagant concert productions. She has been known to soar above the stage in Peter Pan-like flight, her pre-Raphaelite mane topped by a mirror-glassed tiara, glittering in a nimbus of light. Materializing from clouds of fog and a vast expanse of parachute silk, she is attended by male dancers in monkish robes (when they're not bare-chested), her ethereal soprano floating over, through and around a tumultuous wash of sound. • Brightman's program ranges from ambient trance music to Celtic folk songs, anthemic schmaltz to the inevitable Time to Say Goodbye, as she goes solo on her massive hit with popera star Andrea Bocelli. She always does a song or two from Phantom. One of her strongest suits is the kind of waifish sadness she brings to songs like her cover of Queen's Who Wants to Live Forever. • She has a penchant for psychedelia that baby boomers find endearing. Her version of Procol Harum's 1967 classic, A Whiter Shade of Pale, is a ravishing treatment of Keith Reid's elliptical lyrics on vestal virgins leaving for the coast and revelers who "trip the light fandango.'' • All this can be a weirdly compelling mix, and even a guilty pleasure, that in the most heavily processed numbers suggests an ungodly marriage between Phil Spector's "wall of sound'' and German techno-pop.

The publicity — and there is lots of it — says that Brightman is the bestselling soprano of all time (take that, Maria Callas), and a pioneer of the classical crossover genre. She has the PBS pledge drive specials and high-profile ceremonial performances (most recently in August for the opening of the Olympics in Beijing) to prove it.

Brightman's voice grew in size and technical finesse once she left musical theater and got some classical training. She does have a fetching way in the stuff of crossover, with a special weakness for pop-operatic adaptations of Puccini (Nessun Dorma is a staple of her act), but that is not what makes her interesting. Many singers — Charlotte Church, Hayley Westenra, Sissel, the quartet Il Divo — mix and match pop and classical.

And really, if you want to listen to Puccini or Verdi or Strauss, Renee Fleming and countless other opera sopranos can sing rings around Brightman and the rest of the crossover crew.

Where Brightman has blazed a trail is in her transformation from a musical theater and light classical singer to the sort of performer who plays hockey arenas. I can't think of another Broadway star who has made a similar leap, except perhaps Barbra Streisand, and she is obviously a special case from a different era. Brightman will be at the St. Pete Times Forum next Sunday on a tour in support of her first album in five years, Symphony, as well as a Christmas album, A Winter Symphony.

Earlier influences

Symphony is typical Brightman, though I don't think it's as good as earlier efforts like Fly, Eden and La Luna. The new album has the obligatory duets (Bocelli again, Kiss' Paul Stanley, Spanish countertenor Fernando Lima), but it's the more lavish concoctions that intrigue me. Running, for example, is a nine-minute opus that combines the stirring Jupiter section from Holst's The Planets, grandiose synth-rock and lyrics on an ecology theme, with Brightman's voice holding it all together.

I interviewed Brightman by phone a few weeks ago, while she was having her hair done in Los Angeles, preparing for a TV appearance. I had always assumed that her change in musical style had been strongly influenced by the German band Enigma, which combined disco and Gregorian chant with much success in Europe in the early 1990s. That was about the time Brightman hooked up with Frank Peterson, a co-founder of the group, who became her boyfriend and producer. They broke up a few years ago, but Peterson has continued to produce her albums, DVDs and concerts.

"Enigma wasn't really an influence at all,'' Brightman said, deflecting my theory. "I've always been interested in electronic music. I loved Kraftwerk in the early days, and my first husband actually found the first electronic group in Germany, Tangerine Dream.''

As a teenager in the '70s, Brightman was briefly married to Andrew Graham-Stewart, who managed Tangerine Dream, which was famous for its moody soundscapes and early mastery of the synthesizer.

Brightman identifies the 1995 album Fly as a turning point in her musical style. It was never officially released in the United States, though it is available as an import. "Fly was an almost complete dive, and not many people know about it,'' she said of the album, whose title track features a buzzing fly. "But there was one piece in there which connected. It was called A Question of Honor, and it was my first hit in Germany. Things started to gel after that.''

'Fluidity in music'

A Question of Honor, originally performed for a light heavyweight championship fight in Germany and later adopted as theme music by a Japanese soccer team, is a great piece of prog-rock bombast, but with some deft classical references, such as an aria from the obscure Catalani opera La Wally.

Brightman's songs do seem to lend themselves to sporting events. Time to Say Goodbye was also first performed for a boxing match in Germany. Figure skaters like to use her music. Sasha Cohen skates a program to Brightman's Anytime, Anywhere.

"It sort of makes sense,'' Brightman told me. "I was a dancer myself, and I'm a great believer in fluidity in music. I understand completely where skaters are coming from when they want to work with my music and my voice.''

Brightman is bigger in Europe than in the United States, where her music gets virtually no play on the radio. "It's definitely a difficulty in this country for singers like myself,'' she said. "Unless you create a particular formula — and I hate that word — you don't manage to get on the radio.''

She thinks her audience is growing fastest in China ("I'm a household name there''), Japan and Latin America. The Symphony tour opened with four shows in Mexico. Like other paragons of global pop — Celine Dion being the role model here — she records in up to five languages. (This multilingual trend reached an apex with Avril Lavigne, who released her 2007 hit single Girlfriend in eight languages.)

The woman's touch

Women are the bulk of Brightman's audience. A few years ago, I interviewed a PBS executive who said the singer's average listener was a 55-year-old woman who saw her as an adorable daughter type.

Brightman still has the air of a perennial coquette, but she thinks her appeal to women is more based on her category-crossing style. "I think they like to be challenged,'' she said. "They expect a lot.''

The Symphony tour has the usual designer-perfume touches — up to 10 costume changes — but Brightman isn't flying through the air. Instead, the production features holographic stage sets that function as "portals into parallel worlds,'' she said. "There's a very mystic, fairy-tale feeling about the whole thing. It's an interesting installation piece, if nothing else.''

In a lot of ways, Brightman reminds me of singers like Celine Dion, Enya, Madonna and Bjork, who bring a steely resolve to their careers, controlling every last aspect of their performances. Her concert productions have a seamless, high-tech theatricality that melds sentimentality with science-fiction fantasy.

"I see things very much like one would look at a movie,'' she said. "You have to have a vision and an understanding of music and the visual arts, right down to the color of the beads, the makeup and costumes. I'm totally into all of these things. It's just a passion.''

John Fleming can be reached at or (727) 893-8716.

.If you go

Sarah Brightman

The soprano performs at 8 p.m. Nov. 16 at the St. Pete Times Forum, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. $57.75-$147.75. (813) 301-2500;

Sarah Brightman, an ethereal diva 11/06/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 10, 2008 1:22pm]
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