The fit lady sings

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 March, 2011, 12:00am

The music press call Katherine Jenkins a classical music superstar - a term that, a couple of decades ago, they would have said was an oxymoron. She's performed in front of Pope John Paul II and Britain's Queen Elizabeth, and sung alongside the likes of Andrea Bocelli and Placido Domingo. Hongkongers will get a chance to judge for themselves when the mezzo-soprano performs in the city tomorrow.

Jenkins' life has been dominated by music since the age of four, when she gave her first public performance. At seven, she began to sing in her local church choir. 'I have sung all my life,' she says. 'It wasn't that anyone told me I had a good voice; it was because it made me so happy. I started to win competitions and eventually started to have singing lessons. The teacher recognised the lyrical quality to my voice and suggested classical music.'

The Welsh-born Jenkins went on to study the genre at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she graduated with honours in all the major opera languages - Italian, German, French and Russian. Soon afterwards, her musical career took a back seat when she entered and won the Face of Wales 2000 competition. She then took up modelling and soon found herself having to choose between two careers.

'I love fashion and gained valuable experience for all the photo shoots I have to do now,' she says. 'But I don't think modelling and singing sit very well together.' After just a few years, Jenkins left the career many would give their right arm for to pursue music. In 2004, she put together a demo for Universal Music and the company offered Jenkins a six-album deal worth more than US$1.5 million, at the time the most lucrative in Britain's classical recording history.

At just 27, Jenkins penned her autobiography. But she held back on discussing many issues, and is still tight-lipped about her private life. She refuses to answer any of the tough questions: criticism that her popularity is all about beauty over talent, her diva-like attitude, drug use as a student and her near-rape at the age of 19.

The book's release in 2008 coincided with another major headline for the singer: the shock revelation that Jenkins had left Universal to sign what was reportedly the biggest record deal in the history of classical music, a contract with Warner worth US$10 million.

But Jenkins insists: 'I am not motivated to do this by money.' It's the love of the genre, or rather genres, that motivates her, she says. Jenkins is a 'classical crossover' performer. In modern usage, it's a term music historians trace to The Three Tenors' landmark concert in 1990, which saw the trio of Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras blend opera, musical theatre and pop into one performance.

Jenkins' crossover category is operatic pop - 'popera' to the critics - a genre made popular by such best-selling artists as Sarah Brightman, Josh Groban and, the undisputed king of operatic pop, Andrea Bocelli.

Jenkins is one of the genre's biggest sellers, her seven albums having sold more than four million copies. 'I am always shocked when I hear statistics on how well the albums have done,' Jenkins says. 'I would never have dreamed that classical music could compete with pop music in this way.'

She has nevertheless faced criticism from classical purists. Critics see her crossover with pop as a travesty, watering down the original songs and removing important characteristics of the genre to appeal to the masses. Jenkins is adamant, however, that singers like herself are helping classical music, not harming it.

'Classical music was the pop music of its day,' she says. 'It was written for everyone and I feel sad when some people say they feel excluded from it, like it's something for only older people. Classical music has had a bit of a makeover in recent years and as a result more and more people seem to be turning to it, which is really very exciting. I am proud to be one of the artists trying to make it more accessible to people.'

Jenkins says her favourite musicians range from divas such as Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion, to stadium-filling pop stars like Madonna and Lady Gaga.

Her concerts are crossovers in themselves, genre-mixing affairs that combine the two vastly different styles in a musical extravaganza.

At times, the shows are contained and focused, an orchestra backing Jenkins' show-stopping voice for a string of classical opera favourites by composers such as Rossini and Puccini. At others, they're visual spectacles; background dancers keep things moving behind the singer, acrobats swirl above the stage, and Jenkins tops it off with songs such as Bob Marley's No Woman, No Cry and at least half a dozen tightly fitted, cleavage-revealing dress changes throughout the night.

Her show in Hong Kong promises to be impressive in both its scope and diversity. Jenkins' first solo gig in the city (her last visit in 2008 was a duet show with Placido Domingo), the two-hour performance includes a set-list with favourites such as Parla piu Piano (more famously known as The Godfather Theme) and Time to Say Goodbye along with more contemporary hits such as Seal's Kiss From a Rose and The Phantom of the Opera's Love Never Dies.

As for what lies next for Jenkins, she has a variety of choices in front of her, and not all in the field of musical. Last Christmas marked her acting debut in an episode of the British television show Doctor Who. Last month, she got engaged to long-time television presenter boyfriend Gethin Jones. She recently took a leap into philanthropy, donating money to an arts centre in Wales that inspired her as a child, and hosted a gala dinner in South Africa to raise funds for abused children.

But as with questions about her personal life, Jenkins isn't talking about that; only about her music. 'I'm making my next album, which will see a return to my classical roots,' she says.

At least the purists will be happy.

Katherine Jenkins, tomorrow, 8pm, Convention and Exhibition, HK$380, HK$580, HK$880, HK$1,280. Tickets: