The Babes are Back
Ten years after they were discovered busking in London’s Covent Garden, multi-platinum singing duo OperaBabes return with a new record deal, new album and new sound. The key is simplicity, as Jeremy Nicholas discovers.
Most people only get one bite of the cherry. Others, with the help of a lot of talent and a sprinkling of luck, get two. Let me take you back ten years to Covent Garden’s Piazza where two classical singers are busking in duet: Rebecca Knight, soprano, and Karen England, mezzo-soprano. They sound like a million dollars, they’re very easy on the eye, chaps, and the audience loves them. Before you can say ‘Lakmé’, they’ve been signed up by a major record label and, calling themselves OperaBabes, propelled onto the international stage with concerts around the world, appearances on the Classical Brits and The Letterman Show in the USA, and a debut album Beyond Imagination that has so far sold over 1.5 million copies. Cue all the clichés about the stuff of dreams, fairytales and it couldn’t happen to a nicer pair. Now, a decade on, it’s happened all over again.
‘When we were first offered the record deal by Sony,’ admits Knight, ‘it was one of those opportunities you have to say yes to, because it’s a once in a lifetime – although now it’s turned out to be twice in a lifetime! We were happy to go with it but it was never going to be us at our best singing under those circumstances. It made me feel very uneasy. I’m not a great believer in putting massive production underneath artists and just kind of floating on the top and not being involved.’
Karen trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Rebecca, less conventionally, trained as a dancer and only started singing seriously shortly before she got her first job in a production of The Magic Flute where the two of them met. Her teachers were her mother (opera singer Gillian Knight), Lillian Watson and Valerie Masterson. The two girls toured in a few more opera productions together before Karen, who had previously done a bit of busking in Covent Garden, suggested that Rebecca join her in the Piazza to sing duets and arias. They could take a break from touring, stay in London and hopefully make a bit of money.
Beyond Imagination remained at No.1 in the UK Classical Chart for eleven weeks. It had plenty of material to make the purists burst with indignation: ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ from Madama Butterfly with a beat track (it was used by ITV for the 2001 FA Cup final and the UEFA Champions League final in Milan), the slow movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto turned into a song called ‘Sempre ricordo’ with Italian lyrics, and the heartbreaking aria ‘Ebben? Ne andrò lontana’ (from Catalani’s La Wally) turned somewhat bizarrely into a duet. ‘It was good fun,’ says Knight, ‘but we didn’t have control over that album and it sent us very much into a crossover direction. We were happy to explore it back then, but that was ten years ago. We’ve come on a big life journey and musical journey since then.’
The journey included a parting with Sony and both singers taking time off to have children. The concerts kept coming; a second CD, Renaissance, appeared in 2006 on the small Instant Karma label, but the high-profile career seemed to be over. They were not sure what the future held, so they decided to make an album purely for themselves without having any record deal in place. ‘We wanted to record something that was true to ourselves, of music that we love, to do it all very simply with just a piano, record it all ourselves and have total control over it.’ Originally they planned to issue it just as a download. They then played it to a friend in the PR business. ‘He loved it and said that it was so unlike the OperaBabes no one’s going to think it’s you. Our first response to this was disappointment because, gosh, actually this is so us! Anyway, he said, “Do you mind if I take it into Warner Classics for their opinion?” We said, “No, it would be great to have some feedback.” Well, he came out of that meeting and told us that they were going to offer us a deal! He had taken it in and played it to them without telling them it was OperaBabes. It was so lovely that the reaction came because of the music – not because of any hype.’
And what’s on Silent Noon, OperaBabes’ first recording for Warner Classics? Fourteen songs by British composers, most of which would have been familiar to our grandparents and great-grandparents, ranging from Quilter’s arrangement of ‘Drink to me only with thine eyes’ and Dibdin’s ‘Tom Bowling’ to Alan Murray’s ‘I’ll walk beside you’ and Ivor Novello’s ‘We’ll gather lilacs’. ‘We wanted to find something a lot more authentic, if you like,’ enthuses Knight, ‘substantial, meaningful things that are not necessarily fashionable. We didn’t want to do stuff that is done frequently. We wanted something clean and truthful and simple and honest and straightforward without all the bells and whistles on it. That’s why it was important to just have piano accompaniment.’
It is a complete departure from their previous albums. ‘OperaBabes’, Knight admits, ‘is a silly name, conjuring up all sorts of preconceived ideas in peoples’ heads, but I hope we can move forward with it now to the next chapter. One particularly good little discovery was “Think on me” [by Alicia Scott, aka Lady John Scott, 1810–1900] which I heard on a wonderful old recording by Isobel Baillie. And it was lovely to have something written by a woman. Then there’s “When other lips and other hearts” by Balfe. Everyone knows “I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls” from The Bohemian Girl, but very few will know this one from [Act 3 of] the same opera. The other unusual one is Bells across the Meadow by Ketèlbey, which is known just as an orchestral work, but we went to the Ketèlbey Society in Birmingham and asked if they had any knowledge of any lyrics to go with the piece. They said, “Yes, we have got the lyrics for it – no one ever asks for them!” I don’t know if anyone has ever recorded the vocal version before.’
Somehow, despite their voices being so different, the two match and blend perfectly. Their ensemble singing is effortless. It just clicks. ‘We’re like family now,’ Rebecca Knight reflects. ‘Each of us fulfils different roles in the relationship, so, yes, it’s a friendship as well as a business.’
OperaBabes’ new album Silent Noon (2564–6614035) is available now from Warner Classics