6 pop songs that might explain why I became an opera lover

I’m an opera lover. That’s what I am. I haven’t always been one, so sometime and somehow I became one. How it happened is really difficult to explain. To put it in Facebook terms: It’s complicated.

When growing up in the 1970’s and the early 1980’s, my “classical education” was quite miniscule. Music education at school didn’t do much to introduce me to either classical music or opera, and I wasn’t introduced to this music at home either.

As a kid I listened to pop music as all the other kids did. Maybe the pop music of my childhood and teenage years can explain why I became so fascinated with opera? My operatic madness must have come from somewhere! Or could it be just coincidence and pure luck?

There were many candidates, but after some soul-searching I came up with a short list of six pop songs that might explain why I became an opera lover.

My very first pop music moment was when the Swedish pop group ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974. After that ABBA became my first teachers in pop music with their catchy tunes. Their songs also had some great lyrics and storylines which were easy to understand for us kids just starting to learn English. One of these songs was “My love, my life”.

The great Elvis Presley died in 1977 and I remember writing about it in our school paper. Elvis’ death opened a whole new box of music for my generation. I remember my fascination for the over the top orchestrations of his songs in his later years, as well as his strong singing voice. In many Elvis songs the lyrics and storylines were just as memorable as the tune itself. Like this one, which in the 1980’s was voted by the Norwegian public as the best Elvis song ever: “In the ghetto”.

The late 1970’s and early 1980’s were the times of disco music. Disco music was beat, glitter and glamour, but most of all I remember the great singing voices of the disco era. Many of the disco singers had their background from gospel and/or soul music, so their voices were very often strong and soulful.

The artist that really defined the disco era was Donna Summer. She was also one of the very few disco artist that survived the disco era. Donna Summer died earlier this year. Her passing gave me a musical epiphany. Wanting some Donna Summer memories I searched the web and found a song that I loved listening to in the late 1970’s. Then it hit me: “This is so operatic! Love it! Still! This song really explains why I listen to opera today!”. The song was “Now I need you”.

The strong and soulful voices of the disco era made me explore soul music, especially the artists connected to Motown. So many great artists came to my attention; The Supremes, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, and many more.

I discovered the Broadway musicalDreamgirls” in the early 1980’s when, on impulse, I bought The original Broadway cast album. This musical is a fictional story about a female singing group, but the story also resembles the story of The Supremes. The musical consists of a string of soulful songs, all integrated into the larger drama of the musical. This combination of music and drama fascinated me.

Jennifer Holliday gave a performance in this show that was both mind-blowing and breathtaking, especially when she sang “And I’m telling you I’m not going”.

When my teenage years came to an end I discovered the great jazz singer Billie Holiday. She came from a time when jazz music was the pop music of its day. The raw voice, the simple, but often very sad lyrics, fascinated me. Each of her songs told a story and they were sung by Billie as she had lived them all. And she probably had. This was songs about life for adults. No teenager’s heartbreak here. This was seriously heartbreak for grownups: “I’m a fool to want you”.

In the mid 1980’s I also discovered the voice of Jimmy Somerville, the vocalist of Bronski Beat and later The Communards, before he began a solo career. His singing voice could be characterised as a falsetto or countertenor voice, but I didn’t know that then. I just liked his singing. It was just another voice to discover. And it turned out to be even more wonderful voices out there!

I got a musical epiphany when I watched one of his videos on the web recently. It suddenly hit me: “I love listen countertenors today because I listened to Jimmy Somerville in the 1980’s and 1990’s!”. The video was Jimmy Somerville together with The Communards singing “You are my world”.

Well, how did these six pop songs make me an opera lover? Because they were quite catchy tunes. Or they were songs with great lyrics or great storylines. Or it could be that some songs had over the top orchestrations. Maybe it was because the singers had strong voices. Or raw voices. Or soulful voices. Or it was because they sang as if they had lived the song. Maybe it was because the song was an integrated part of a larger dramatic story. Or maybe it was just because they sang in a new way, making me curious about the variations of the human voice. It couldn’t be just coincidence or pure luck.

Anyhow, after listening to some classical music, I bought my first opera LPs in the mid 1980’s. It was the operas Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini and La Bohème by Puccini. I liked what I heard. Some years later I bought my first Pavarotti record, the two LP set compilation “My own story”, on pure impulse. Pavarotti became my favorite tenor for life.

And this was my own story about my own journey. A journey thru the world of pop music, via disco, soul, musicals and jazz, thru the wonderland of the human voice, into the wonderful world of opera. And the journey continues.

And there just might be others out there taking a similar journey today. I wish them the best. Especially when they come home with their first Pavarotti record.