Princes of classical crossover: Frangoulis, Groban, Safina, Watson and the American Tenors.
Pop's hit (and miss) parade
Lend me a tenor (or three), public TV sings at pledge time

Originally published in Current, Jan. 27, 2003
By Geneva Collins

If it’s pledge time on public television, you can’t tell your tenors without a scorecard.

The Celtic Tenors are Irish, but they’re not the Irish Tenors. Three Mo’ Tenors are American, but they’re not the American Tenors. The original, need-no-adjective trio that started it all—the Three Tenors—still perform once or twice a year to packed sports arenas, but as for taking part in PBS pledge programming, well, the fat lady appears to have sung.

"I guess you could call tenor trios the boy bands of PBS," quipped Gustavo Sagastume, the PBS programming v.p. who oversees pledge shows. Indeed, the later, youthful crops of tenors may have more in common with ’N Sync than their creators might like to admit, with their strong jaw lines, fetching smiles and twinkling eyes.

Tenors don’t just come in trios. PBS has tried Big Voices as solo acts to get those phones ringing. Last year’s sensation, Josh Groban (actually a baritone), is following in the footsteps of Andrea Bocelli (the blind tenor) and Italian Alessandro Safina (the tenor one writer christened the "singing George Clooney"). APT has chimed in with British tenor Russell Watson and Greek tenor Mario Frangoulis.

To ensure no permutation is left unexplored, the March drive will also feature the duo of opera diva Renee Fleming and Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel (singing mostly Broadway show tunes). PBS also has the Two Tenors in the pipeline for summer pledging. Although still in development, the lineup being crafted is Argentine superstar Marcel Alvarez and Italian Salvatore Licitra, who made headlines last year filling in for Luciano Pavarotti at the Met. The format may also include a Soprano To Be Named Later, Sagastume said.

The record companies call the music featured on these shows "classical crossover." The format is typically a blend of familiar arias, Italian love songs that sound like arias but are not, and lavishly orchestrated pop tunes. "I would venture to say no other network has done more than PBS to create this new genre," Sagastume noted.

The programs typically are taped in dramatic outdoor locales (Watson in New Zealand; Safina at a Greek amphitheater) or sumptuous concert halls (the American Tenors at Hollywood’s Kodak Theater, home of the Academy Awards). Guest acts range from the high-stepping Gael Force Dancers, who get hands clapping for the Celtic Tenors, to slinky dancers gyrating with vinyl silver balls to add sizzle—or something—to Safina’s routine. The Three Mo’ Tenors project class and coolness in white tie and tails and a series of neon-hued tuxes, but most everybody else has ditched ties for open collars. A rendition of "O Sole Mio" appears to be de rigueur.

The original Three Tenors—Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras—were already household names when the marketing genius of classical musical impresario Tibor Rudas brought them together for their first concert in Rome for the 1990 World Cup finals. By the time their concert in L.A.’s Dodger Stadium reached PBS airwaves in 1994, they were a well-hyped phenomenon. That program garnered $17.5 million for PBS—a 30-to-1 return on investment for the network, said Sagastume. Two years later, a broadcast of the tenors’ performance in Giants stadium raised a mere $1.2 million.

Sagastume attributes the dropoff to a couple of factors: The second show may not have been different enough from the first to attract viewers; the original show may have already captured most of the audience that was predisposed to pledge during such programming. Similar dropoffs have been tallied between first- and second-show pledgings of subsequent tenor acts. So public television needs a steady stream of new tenor talent for specials and premiums or viewers will slip into a been-there-pledged-that mode.

Auditioning for sex appeal

The latest threesome to be offered up for public television consumption are the Three American Tenors, who will debut during March pledge. Nathan Granner, Daniel Montenegro and Maurice O’Reilly were hand-picked after a national star search by conductor-composer-arranger Frank McNamara. He was the force behind the Irish Tenors, the first made-for-PBS tenor trio. The three are classical conservatory-trained singers whose repertoire offers Neapolitan love songs, Broadway show tunes ("Luck Be a Lady") and American folk standards ("Oh Susanna").

"When I was on tour [in the States] with the Irish Tenors for three years, I was always amazed that there were no American tenors singing American music," said McNamara, interviewed by phone from his home in Ireland. So he put together his own.

Although the American tenors are indisputably talented, each with a long list of performing credits to his name, McNamara is unabashed about selecting singers for their sex appeal.

"I’ve worked in television for 23 years. I always say to people, it’s not radio. You’ve got to have a presence on the stage," he said. "First of all you have to sound good and look good—not just handsome but have a presence on camera. It was also important that these be nice people, and who could work together. The camaraderie is so important in shows like this."

The classical crossover audience is predominately female and typically over 45, though the various acts attract slightly different demographics, according to Kristen Kuebler, director of station research for TRAC Media Services, Tucson.

The Irish Tenors, who milk the sentiment from standards like "Danny Boy," tend to pull in viewers TRAC describes as "cuppa Joe" types—more down-market than the upscale fans who tune in regularly to Great Performances (whom TRAC dubs "cappuccino" viewers). The bonny young lads in black leather who make up the Celtic Tenors pulled in more youthful fans in their 2002 debut. Three Mo’ Tenors, an African-American trio, attracted, not surprisingly, more African-American viewers with their mix of classical, jazz, spiritual and Broadway selections.

Among soloists, Josh Groban, who is so youthful-looking he played a high school student on an Ally McBeal episode, attracted viewers that ranged in age from their 20s to their 70s—diversity that had PBS number-crunchers ecstatic. APT’s success with its tenors is harder for TRAC to measure, but Groban beat up Mario Frangoulis ratings-wise (2.6 for Groban, versus less than 1 for Frangoulis), but in a comparison of pledges per viewer, Frangoulis came out on top, said Kuebler.

Tenor ensembles have an advantage over soloists in that they increase the odds of viewers staying tuned, Kuebler explained. A viewer disenchanted with a solo performer will flip to another channel, but the same person may endure numbers by two members of a trio to see a favored performer swing into action.

TRAC, which calls this type of music "accessible classical," has found that this genre shares the key tenet of success as other musical pledge programming from Doo-Wop to Boomer rock—it connects with people’s emotions, Kuebler said. Classical crossover shows clearly have their fans, but are these performances a dumbing-down of serious music? Do opera aficionados turn up their noses at tenors who have never performed in Carmen singing an aria from it?

"Yes, there are people who sneer at them," said Fred Child, weekday host of NPR’s Performance Today. "But these are not meant for the hard-core [classical music] fans. The thing about these performers is that they are injecting a sense of fun. I could see where the shows could be a gateway into classical music. A viewer hears a Verdi aria he likes and says, ‘who is this guy Vir-dee? I should check him out’ and buys a classical CD. Or they hear the Celtic Tenors and get curious and discover Thistle and Shamrock to learn more about the history of the music."

"Worrying about turning off an audience you would need a magnifying glass to find is not an issue," said Sagastume, noting that opera on PBS typically logs a 0.3 rating.

"Manage that emotion"

At any rate, these programs are not expensive for public television to produce.

Sagastume estimates that PBS pays only 20-25 percent of production costs, with record companies and foreign distributors covering the rest. "We’re the top market for these performers and the record labels know that," he said. "We have the audience and CD buyers for this music, and we’re able to leverage that."

The predominately female audience that watches classical crossover is the main reason why the performer holding the mike is more likely to be male. Sagastume said programs featuring female artists simply don’t do as well. Female viewers may enjoy sopranos, but they apparently do not feel the emotional connection that translates into a pledge.

"If I knew what formula succeeded, I’d be so rich," said McNamara, whom Sagastume praised for his sense of showmanship in assembling a pledge program. McNamara said he tries to construct each act of a 60-minute program to have a beginning, middle and end.

"I orchestrate songs to enhance the emotion inherent in each song. I’m a very emotional person myself and it comes out in my music. . . . It may sound cynical, but in these shows, you’ve got to manage that emotion. You can’t have people crying at the end of every act," said McNamara. "In our show they’ll cry at one or possibly two acts, and be jumping out of their seats at the end."

To Current's home page
Earlier news: Tibor Rudas tries to make lightning strike a second time: The Three Sopranos, 1996.
Outside links: Irish Tenors and American Tenors producer Frank McNamara's website and a site by a McNamara fan.

Web page posted Feb. 12, 2003
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