A self-confessed member of the MTV generation who admits to having Coldplay on her iPod and a pronounced "pop-culture side" to her personality might not seem a likely candidate to become one of opera's most feted young stars. But Danielle de Niese, 25, won international acclaim for her bewitching performance as Cleopatra in last summer's production of Handel's "Giulio Cesare" at Glyndebourne. This month she's reprising the same role in the same venue, wowing audiences once again with her prodigious musical talent and sensitive, captivating voice.
De Niese is just one of the rising stars revitalizing the dusty old industry genre known as "core" classical music. Until recently, producers assumed that the only way to expand the classical market was by introducing pop beats, flashy light shows and scantily clad singers. No one cared about another traditional recording of Brahms or Beethoven--and the production costs were steep. Highbrow classical artists shied away from the publicity machine, demanding that the music should stand on its own. Now, says Bogdan Roscic, recently appointed managing director of Decca, one of Universal Music's two classical labels, "the old way of doing things is gone. Successful artists understand that it is not only the music making that sets you apart. It is also the personality of the artist and their ability to communicate what they do in many nonmusical ways that make them stand out."
Above all, individual style is broadening classical music's canon. Soprano Anna Netrebko's album "Russian Songs," which will be released in October, is an unusual and personal selection of arias from Russian opera. Trumpet prodigy Alison Balsom's new CD, "Ca-price," due out in September, transforms well-known works such as Paganini's violin Caprice No. 24 and Debussy's solo flute piece "Syrinx," transcribed for her instrument. Not content with reviving the forgotten arias of Antonio Salieri in 2003, Cecilia Bartoli recently launched "Opera Proibita," a collection of little-known works written during the early 18th century, when opera and theater were banned in Rome. "This field, in which everything has been recorded twice or more, needs a more personal approach," says Roscic. "More research is now put into new recordings; there are more interesting choices of repertoire."
Audiences can also be drawn in by an artist's personal story, the quirkier the better. Classic FM, the U.K.'s largest commercial radio station, is launching the debut recording of a new label this fall by tenor Alfie Boe, a former car mechanic who later trained with the Royal Opera. De Niese studied drama, hosting a Los Angeles TV show in her teens. "Vocal technique is a priority," she says. "But just as important is the dramatic arc that you create onstage." As opera performances reach ever-larger audiences on DVD, singers with theatrical talent are increasingly prized. "Today opera needs something extra," says Netrebko, speaking from the Salzburg Festival, where she is performing Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" this month. "There is a kind of artist who grabs your attention as soon as they are onstage, and this is what the audience remembers, this energy and personality."
New technology has also helped the trend, in part by making it cheaper to re-cord classical albums. Editing a classical work used to be a torturous, pricey process of splicing tape. Computers have made this quicker and more precise. While a handful of orchestras are still able to hold out for vast fees from record labels, many more are now willing to cut deals that reduce costs.
In the end, though, virtuoso skills are the key in core classical music, where there are no amplified instruments or electronic beats to compensate for second-rate talent. "You can't market mediocrity to success," says Roscic. "Orchestras and conductors aren't interested in working with someone who's just been hyped." Audiences aren't fooled by slick marketing, either. "There are some really strong artists out there at the moment, who also know how to connect with listeners," says Darren Henley, station manager at Classic FM. "But above all, audiences look for authenticity." There's plenty of that captivating music lovers in concert halls around the world this summer, and in an exciting crop of new recordings coming out this fall. A new generation of classical stars is assuredly making its mark.