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Sarah Brightman's first U.S. arena tour strives for Middle Eastern intimacy.

Harem girl: Sarah Brightman's sound gets - some Middle Eastern pizzazz.
  • Harem girl: Sarah Brightman's sound gets some Middle Eastern pizzazz.
A gut feeling told Sarah Brightman to recall every book about exotic places she had ever opened. Those pages, she sensed, would take her back to distant regions that fascinated her as a child, such as magical Marrakesh, a bustling casbah, and the alluring oases of North Africa. "I have always loved that whole Arabian Nights feeling," she says. "I like the idea of parallel worlds, faraway lands, and mystery."

So it's fitting that Brightman -- the vocalist who played the role of Christine in ex-husband Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera -- would team up with producer Frank Peterson and recruit musicians from Prague to Cairo to create Harem, a soundscape of songs bathed in Middle Eastern ambiance.

The album takes its title from the Arabic word for "forbidden place" -- where sensuous dance rhythms, evocative orchestral arrangements, and bold melodies rule. To fashion a sound that came straight out of a scene from Casablanca, Brightman sought the help of Iraqi pop superstar Kadim Al Sahir and other Arabian and North African musicians. "I love the mix of classical and rock and pop with electronic instruments," she says.

On the title track, a 21st-century adaptation of the traditional Portuguese tune "Cançao do Mar," an ancient fado foundation is fused to a percussive world beat. "I wanted our version to have a contemporary feel: love, the desert, passion, and fire, but also with a dance feeling," Brightman says.

Her coloratura voice then reaches into the world of grand opera, spiriting away Puccini's "Un bel di" melody (from Madama Butterfly) into "It's a Beautiful Day." "It has this feeling of space, of mystery, of times gone by," she explains. "And I felt that the Asian quality that Puccini created works in this new sound." Other classics, including "Stranger in Paradise" from music by Russian composer Alexander Borodin, also get the Middle Eastern treatment. "[It] speaks for itself," Brightman says of the Borodin piece. "Not only does it have a beautiful melody, but the song was created for the musical Kismet, which evokes the kind of fantasy that we wanted to create."

With Harem perched high on Billboard's classical crossover charts, Brightman is on a two-and-a-half-month tour -- her first in nearly four years -- performing for the first time in U.S. arenas. "To actually display your work in front of an audience is an amazing thing, because you get reaction from what you're doing," she says. And the feedback tells her that the Middle Eastern hook was the right thing to do.

"I like to be peaceful, and, if something's wrong in my life, I fight to get it right. There's nothing worse than getting to the end [of your life] and thinking, Why didn't I try that? Why didn't I have the courage?"

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