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How the '90s almost destroyed classical music, from the Three Tenors to Vanessa-Mae to Sarah Brightman

Editorial Staff

Written by Michael Morreale

It’s a nearly timeless scene. A grey-haired conductor, dressed in a baggy black tux, enters a concert hall to applause and raises his baton over the orchestra’s anticipatory silence. Behind the scenes, the administration grows increasingly concerned about its mounting deficit, and the musicians are beginning to get antsy over their low wages. In this case, the grey-haired man is the rigid German conductor Günther Herbig, leading his first performance as music director of Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall on Sept. 11, 1990. With his downbeat begins a turbulent decade for this orchestra, a decade that would also bring a significant perspective change for major record labels.

While Toronto was sorting out how to hammer away at its growing financial shortfall, a spectacle between crumbling ancient walls in Rome was about to rock the way the recording industry treated classical music. The setting was nothing short of magnificent: the world’s first glimpse of the Three Tenors was in front of the third-century red-bricked walls of the Baths of Caracalla, moonlit against the black sky of the Eternal City. Three of the world’s most famous voices — José Carreras, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti — united by Carreras’s triumph over leukemia. On the night before the 1990 FIFA World Cup final, the tenors and two orchestras joined together for what became the biggest commercial success that classical music had ever seen.

A television audience of 800 million tuned in to hear the Three Tenors sing crowd-pleasing songs and arias like Bernstein’s "Maria" and Puccini’s "Nessun Dorma" from Turandot against the dramatic Roman backdrop. When released on recording, The Three Tenors in Concert sold more than 10 million copies — enough to make it the best-selling classical recording of all time.

You can likely imagine the saliva dripping from the mouths of record label executives as they watched sales figures climb to unprecedented heights. You can likely also imagine that the mission was to replicate that success. The tenors’ tenure as box office blockbusters set aggressive new standards and put enormous pressure on major label artists to no longer be satisfied with selling merely 1,000 copies of a new recording. The classical music mass-marketing machine was born.

Megahits proved impossible to predict. Pavarotti singing Puccini’s "Nessun Dorma" led to many sleepless nights for record label executives, who began madly experimenting with unusual combinations, resulting in projects with a varying range of commercial success. Among the profitable projects was Singapore-born, London-raised Vanessa-Mae, who forced together classical and techno, complete with electric violin and fashions to match. Her breakout 1995 recording, The Violin Player, approached Three Tenors status by selling more than eight million copies.

Other projects looked closer at the Three Tenors for success, which gave birth to a whole new genre: popera. Sarah Brightman’s coming of age came under laughably similar circumstances as the Three Tenors’ explosion. The clear-voiced English soprano began her momentum by singing a duet with José Carreras at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Summer Games to an enormous worldwide audience. Three years later, Brightman released her breakthrough single, "A Question of Honour," by singing at an international boxing competition in Germany. The faux opera-plus-sporting event spectacle formula paid off in 1997 with the release of Time to Say Goodbye, which, together with its duet-single alongside fellow popera star Andrea Bocelli, went gold and platinum in 21 countries.

Other prosperous projects were less predictable. A surprise success came in the form of a contemporary work by Polish composer Henryk Górecki. His Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, a lamentful work for soprano and orchestra, was written in 1976. A fourth recording of the piece, this time with soprano Dawn Upshaw, was released in 1992 and it shot to the top of classical and pop charts around the world, selling over one million copies. A blockbuster success for a contemporary work on its fourth recording is just as unprecedented as an album of Benedictine monks from a Spanish monastery performing Gregorian chant. That 1994 album, simply titled Chant, sold more than four million copies. It once again left record executives scratching their heads looking for the next breakthrough.

Back to Toronto, where symphony administration hoped and wished that blockbuster crossover album sales would bring in new patrons to help the struggling symphony’s bottom line. Instead, the symphony’s record deals dried up as the industry looked for megahits elsewhere. In 1992, Toronto Symphony musicians agreed to a temporary reduction in pay to prevent the organisation from filing for bankruptcy. By Sept. 25, 1999, the musicians had still not recovered their lost wages. As of 5 p.m. that day, Roy Thomson Hall fell silent and the musicians went on strike.

On Dec. 15, another nearly timeless scene occurred in Toronto. A conductor in a black tux took to the stage for a performance of the most beloved classical holiday tradition, Handel’s Messiah. This time, with conductor Andrew Davis’ downbeat signalling the musicians to begin, the orchestra ended a rocky 11 weeks of being on strike. The turbulent decade came to a close with a clear indication of where the classical world stood; record labels were obsessed with large numbers and how to get them, while major organisations, like Toronto Symphony, struggled with their bottom lines. Perhaps the only winners were those few newly created classical megastars, and the salivating record executives who helped get them there.

Follow Michael Morreale on Twitter: @18mrm