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In a pivotal scene in Robert Altman's film Gosford Park, the British matinee idol Ivor Novello (played by Jeremy Northam) entertains a parlour full of guests at a country manor in the early thirties by crooning his own songs from the piano. The manor's female servants crowd the shadows around the doorway, abandoning their own below-stairs drama to swoon at the elegant romance of tunes like The Land of Might Have Been and I Can Give You the Starlight. The scene is important to the film because it unites the classes at the very moment when an act of personal yet class-based vengeance (the murder of the manor's owner) is taking place. But it also represents a crucial stage in the construction of a mass audience for popular music.

Novello was a real figure, whose hugely popular stage shows provided what critic Kenneth Tynan called "fulsome Zenda-ish glimpses into the private worlds of mythical kings and queens," furnished with tunes everyone could whistle. Like the Broadway operettas of Sigmund Romberg ( The Student Prince)and Rudolf Friml ( Rose-Marie),Novello's shows used operatic voices and populist song-writing to broker between the demanding forms of high-class culture that quality folk were supposed to enjoy and the simpler entertainments they and their parlour maids often did.

Such shows are doubly nostalgic today, because by Novello's death in 1951 singers such as Frank Sinatra had erased the need for a bridge between high and low music culture. Or so it seemed, till Andrea Bocelli came along.

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Almost single-handedly, Bocelli has restored and exploited the magnetic tension between pop and high-class music that made Novello a wealthy man. Over the past eight years, the Italian tenor has sold more than 43 million records. That's more than Pavarotti, and more than the Three Tenors, whose Sinatra covers and televised mega-shows proved to some extent that what Bocelli is doing could be done.

His latest album, Sentimento,entered the Billboard Top 200 chart at No. 12, at a time when the classical recording industry is sick or dying. A lot of people would like some of that action, which is why there's now a small brigade of singers offering their versions of Bocelli's operatic romance. Josh Groban, Russell Watson, Mario Frangoulis and Alessandro Safina are all having the kind of commercial success that blue-chip opera stars such as Canadian Ben Heppner will likely never see. Half of the titles on the classical Top 10 in Canada belong to Groban, Bocelli and Watson. Two of the others are by teen soprano Charlotte Church and the Opera Babes, who have been cleaning up on the less lucrative female side of the pop-classical gold rush.

The men are more successful because they offer more to dream about, to the people who are most inclined to buy. The audience for Bocelli and his imitators, like that for pop balladeers such as Julio Iglesias, is heavily female, and seems more attracted by the type of romantic male sexuality they advertise than by their vocal refinements. Several of these singers have a tenuous connection to opera and operatic training.

Frangoulis studied at London's Guildhall School before going pop with The Phantom of the Opera, but Watson and the baritonal Groban have no formal training. Groban, who is 21, had barely started college when a chance encounter with Canadian-born pop producer David Foster put him on stage with Celine Dion at the 1998 Grammy Awards broadcast (where he filled in for Bocelli).

Another big break came during an episode of Ally McBeal, in which Groban played a tortured teen who becomes the class Cinderella after singing angelically at his prom.

Watson, 35, was a factory worker in Manchester before recording his grandly titled album The Voice, which has sold more than three million copies. His Web site notes with a touch of pride that he was "controversially banned from Classical FM because of his populist appeal and lack of formal opera training."

Watson's bootstraps-ascent resembles that of Mario Lanza, who hauled furniture in Philadelphia before landing a career-making role in the film That Midnight Kiss in 1949. Lanza was the first operatic tenor to build a career almost entirely in electronic media. He made seven films and had his own radio show, but appeared in only one opera production.

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Enrico Caruso had a bigger impact on the history of recorded music ("People did not really begin to buy gramophones until the appearance of the Caruso records," Compton Mackenzie wrote in 1924), but unlike Lanza's, Caruso's career was firmly based on his opera appearances. Lanza is the model for Bocelli's set, and for every operatic singer who dreams of mass success. Like Lanza, they mix romantic classical numbers with pop tunes that flatter an operatic sound -- even when, as in Groban's or Watson's case, the full technique of an operatic voice is missing.

The sound of these pop-operatic voices functions like a piece of Limoges china, that dignifies and elevates whatever is served on it. Groban's repertoire of romantic ballads is mostly pap, and there's very little range in the way he performs it. But his sound implies something rare and strange, which has been miraculously transported from a non-pop universe and adapted to a purpose that requires no high-class musical knowledge to understand. His faun-like appearance confirms his otherworldy appeal and projects the kind of sensitive masculinity that three decades of feminism have endorsed as the only kind worth dreaming about.

Bocelli is still the prince of that kind of sexuality, thanks to his cozy but sensual demeanour, his honeyed tones, and his intimate style. Watson's appeal is more puckish, as you might expect from a handsome working-class lad who has made a bigger splash than other lads who studied at conservatories.

Frangoulis and Safina (who sang Ewan McGregor's part in Moulin Rouge) are more conventionally manly, and so far, less successful. Not surprisingly, the advent of these singers has prompted much hand-wringing and contempt in classical circles. One response has been to revisit T.W. Adorno's gloomy analyses of "the culture industry," which hollows out legitimate cultural goods and retails them as elevated entertainments. Another has been to ignore the problem -- deem it unworthy of serious notice.

Watson was kept off Classical FM, and Bocelli gets no ink in the 29-volume New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, whose 2001 revised edition has many entries for obscure tenors of the past, but none for the tenor of our times.

The thing that maddens the classical guardians most of all is that Bocelli has not faded away, as many thought he would. The public has not tired of soft-focus classical-style singers, or of the limp ballads and faux-religious ditties they so often sing. On the contrary, the demand for their labours seems to be growing. Many of us still want to hear the sounds of high-class romance, whether we've got a seat in the parlour or merely a hiding place in the hall.

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That would have appealed to Ivor Novello, whose only known act of disobedience toward his adored mother, a famous voice teacher, was not to pursue her dream that he become an opera composer. Instead, he went where he knew people would follow. "I'm not really interested in people saying how wonderfully clever and deep I am," he said, "and then playing to empty houses, like clever and deep people often do."

Like Bocelli and every other purveyor of pop bel canto, Novello was clever enough to read the dreams of his public, and make them seem true.

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