Thursday 8 December 2016

A musical trip from opera to pop star . . .

Published 16/07/2011 | 05:00

Last Sunday night, millions were thrilled as yet another TV reality contest reached its climax. For Joe McElderry, from the northeast of England, it completed a double. Two years ago, he won The X Factor. Now, he's come out on top in Popstar to Operastar.

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One of the highlights of McElderry's winning performance was his singing of the Italian number 'Musica Proibita' with Rolando Villazón, the Mexican tenor who was one of the judges on the show and might well be making a journey in the opposite direction, from opera star to pop star.

Villazón's latest album plants him firmly in the crossover camp. La Strada -- Songs From The Movies (Decca, 028947797296) is an exhilarating collection of refreshing new takes on old reliables. There's Edith Piaf's 'Non je ne regrette rien'; Charles Aznavour's signature song 'She' (an Elvis Costello version featured in Notting Hill); and Charlie Chaplin's 'Smile' (though your heart is aching), the theme to his movie Modern Times.

Villazón's own story could have made a movie. He grew up in an apartment block in a suburb of Mexico City, and just loved to sing. Musicals -- in particular Man of La Mancha -- were his favourite.

But his stage was his bathroom, though, in a perfect twist, that got him his break. At full voice in the shower, he was heard by a visitor next door. That man -- Arturo Nieto -- a singer and music teacher, offered to take on the teen and train him for the opera.

Like McElderry, Villazón scored a double success, with simultaneous victories in an international competition run by Plácido Domingo. He was first in the sections for opera and zarzuela, the particularly Spanish form of the lighter side of the art, and his career was under way.

In little over a decade, and not yet 40, Villazón has become one of musical drama's major stars, but the journey has not been without its difficulties. In 2007, he declared himself burnt out, and put his career on hold for almost six months. Problems persisted after he came back, and he had to undergo throat surgery in 2009.

But last year, he got right back on track. The first series of Popstar to Operastar introduced him to a wider audience, and he finally made his debut on opera's biggest stage, La Scala in Milan. Opera star? For sure. Pop star? He may well end up being both.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning ghamilton@independent.ie

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