José van Dam, the Belgian bass-baritone, says quality rather than quantity should be the golden rule of opera.
A matter of quality control
The lines between pop and opera have been blurring of late. With the likes of Paul Potts, the mobile telephone salesman who shot to stardom on Britain's Got Talent two years ago with his version of Nessun Dorma, and Katherine Jenkins, the blonde siren and modern-day Vera Lynn now putting music's most high-brow form into living rooms everywhere, it's not hard to see why. To an old-timer like José van Dam, the internationally renowned Belgian bass-baritone who has been in Abu Dhabi to perform at a special ADMAF concert to celebrate the visit of Prince Philippe and Princess Mathilde of Belgium, this new development poses some risks.
"I think it's necessary for opera to be popular," he says, "but popular in the high level, not in the low one. You must make sure that people are going up and not down." He apologises for his imperfect command of English, but his point is clear: it's about quality, not quantity. "Opera is classic, and it's not easy to make a mélange between opera and pop. I hope for Potts that he goes further, but it's not easy. Today, TV, radio, CDs and DVDs can make you a big star. But the difficulty is staying a star."
With only 20 per cent of it down to talent, he says, it could be a rocky road. "The rest is hard work. You need to have a good voice and good technique, but you also need to be healthy because one day you are in Japan, the next in America, the next in Australia. It's not easy if you're not healthy." Van Dam approached opera the hard way. Born in Brussels in 1940, he started singing at the age of 11. By 13 he had his first and only teacher. At 20 he was in the Opéra de Paris.
"A lot of people start to sing at 20," he says, "so I was ahead of the game because I started training when I was younger." His endeavours paid off, and the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s saw him showered with awards including the Orphée d'Or de l'Académique Lyrique Française in 1980, the European critics' prize for his Saint François d'Assise in Paris in 1985 and the Diapason d'Or and Prix de la Nouvelle Académique du Disque in 1994.
He was knighted by King Albert II in 1998 in recognition of his services to classical music. Last night's concert at the Emirates Palace saw him perform selections from Mozart's Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro and Così Fan Tutte along with the soprano Lies Vandewege, the mezzo-soprano Inizan Anne-Fleur and the violinist Lorenzo Gatto. "I have sung Figaro more than 400 times," he says. "I like to play on stage. It's important when you are an opera singer. They are singing instead of speaking, but you must be an actor, too."
He researches his roles meticulously. "When I played Falstaff, I read Shakespeare; when I was doing Don Carlos, I read Schiller." Devils, he says, are the most enjoyable of all to play. "I am a very good devil." That many people nowadays would rather listen to a compilation of "100 best arias" rather than a whole opera is understandable. "Today we live in a time when things are fast. It's very difficult to find two or three hours to watch an opera. They have 20 or 30 minutes, and then they think 'I must do something else.' I understand it."
Despite its "elitist" reputation, Van Dam believes traditional opera also has an appeal for young people. "It is a little elitist, but then so is theatre; so is painting. A lot of young people today go to the opera and like classical music. In Brussels, where we have La Monnaie, we have an association of young opera lovers. In the beginning they had 150 members; now they have 3,000." Home, though, is an opera-free zone. "I have enough opera in my life as it is. I love the tango - the sensuality of the music - and I have a big jazz collection. Not modern jazz. I have a fantastic English pianist called George Shering and I have Louis Armstrong and Chet Baker."
Perhaps not surprisingly, modern pop music is not to his taste. "I like melody in music; I don't like boom boom boom. When I was young it was good music. It was rock and roll. It was The Platters. It was beautiful music. Today it is very loud. That, to me, is not music." * Katie Boucher