The Birth of Popera

Josh Groban is an opera singer for people who can't stand opera.

Josh Groban Quicken Loans Arena, One Center Court 7:30 p.m. Sunday, February 18, $53-$88, 216-241-2121
Josh Groban: Real pipes, fake mountains.
Josh Groban: Real pipes, fake mountains.
On the evening of Tuesday, April 17, 1906, Enrico Caruso plays Don José in Bizet's Carmen. The sold-out crowd at San Francisco's Opera House gives the Italian tenor a typically venerating reception, including somewhere between 4 and 15 curtain calls -- depending on which version you read.

But early the next morning . . .

"I wake up about 5 o'clock, feeling my bed rocking as though I am in a ship on the ocean, and for a moment I think I am dreaming that I am crossing the water on my way to my beautiful country," Caruso would later recount to The Sketch, a London weekly. "And so I take no notice for the moment, and then, as the rocking continues, I get up and go to the window, raise the shade and look out. And what I see makes me tremble with fear. I see the buildings toppling over, big pieces of masonry falling, and from the street below I hear the cries and screams of men and women and children." Not long after that infamous earthquake, Caruso would become the world's most famous recording artist, as well as its most hospitable tabloid sensation. And nowadays, he is generally considered history's most formidable operatic voice and its first Transatlantic pop star.

"The place of Enrico Caruso among famous singers of the world finds but halting comparison in his own time," read his New York Times obituary from 1921. "There was no second. There is, there will be, no like successor."

But every generation afterward would try to discover that successor, a singer who can -- or at least pretend to -- sing with the romantic zeal of an opera singer while performing all the duties required of pop stars. First, there was singer and film star Mario Lanza, who in the '40s and '50s emulated Caruso's dramatic sob, then Luciano Pavarotti, who returned Lanza's big-screen appeal to the classical world, and recently Andrea Bocelli, who furthered Pavarotti's commercial savvy. Today, the most recent successor to Caruso's line is a dashing young American born on the south end of the San Andreas Fault, Josh Groban.

January, northern Michigan: While home for a funeral, my 36-year-old sister praises Josh Groban up one side of the flag pole and down the other -- and my parents concur. When asked what draws them to his music, they answer, simply: "His voice."

February, San Francisco: It's dusk, and I'm crossing the Bay Bridge in the Honda CR-V of a Filipino male nurse. His six-disc changer has just followed the All-American Rejects with Josh Groban; he sees no incongruity in this. "Oh my goo'ness," he gushes as we roll into the glistening skyline of rebuilt San Francisco. "Eeets amaaaazing. His voooooice."

The divide between Groban and Caruso is wide. For starters, Groban's a baritone and doesn't consider himself an opera singer. But when you consider the rapacious fanaticism of their massive audiences, they have much in common. A graduate of Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan and a dropout at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, Groban is on pace to be among the most popular recording artists of the decade. The doe-eyed, square-jawed, tussled-haired 25-year-old has sold 12 million records since his 2001 self-titled debut. His 2004 tour brought in almost $30 million, while decent seats for his current tour are scalping at a grand each.

To understand how this came to pass, credit producer, arranger, songwriter, and failed reality-television star David Foster, whose CV boasts such pop heavies as Céline, Streisand, Whitney, Michael, Kenny G, and Madonna.

When Foster tapped a 17-year-old Josh Groban in 1998, he hitched Groban's wagon to the emerging classical crossover market of Bocelli, Sarah Brightman, Charlotte Church, and those dastardly Three Tenors. And when Groban subbed for Bocelli at a 1999 Grammy Awards dress rehearsal with Céline, he was made. The fact that it was the first year for the Grammy designation "Best Classical Crossover" hints at the flawless timing. Rosie O'Donnell, the event's host, booked him on her show the next week, and he was cooing for Ally McBeal in a New York minute. If Caruso was an opera singer who just happened to be a pop star, then Foster groomed Groban to be a pop star playing the role of an opera singer, making music that sounds classical to the ears of non-classical fans.

Foster not only produced and partially wrote Groban's self-titled debut, he released it on his newly minted 143 imprint. Swelling with lavish synthesizer orchestras, and often crooned in opera's mother tongue, songs such as "Alla Luce del Sole" and "Gira con Me" feel like an Eiffel Tower reproduction at a Vegas casino: a scaled-down and sexed-up facsimile of high art. Where Bizet-via-Caruso opera addressed existential questions of love, loyalty, duty, and destiny with no certain answers, Foster-via-Groban "popera" appealed to the broad tastes of today's everyman -- Filipino male nurses and midwestern older sisters alike -- who immediately related to the vague sentiment as Groban sang, "You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains." American Idol Svengali Simon Cowell, who later created the popera boy-band Il Divo, nailed the target demographic: a population "too intimidated by opera to go and see it but who love the romance of the music."

After the first Groban disc romanced the public with multiplatinum success, the next two, 2003's Closer and 2006's Awake, enraptured them. And along with their rapture, popera blossomed.

If Caruso could hear Groban today, it might be like that first disorienting moment a century ago when he rose from bed in San Francisco.

The soundtrack to that moment would be Groban's "The Prayer." Since it's offered both in Caruso's native tongue and English, he'd understand when Groban asks an absent power to "guide us with your grace, to a place where we'll be safe." At first, it seems like that power, that voice, might deliver Caruso to his beautiful homeland, but when Caruso actually comes to his senses, it's really quite the opposite of what he dreamed.

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