A riddle: What do the 2008 Olympics, the gore-streaked “Saw” movie franchise and famed composer Andrew Lloyd Webber have in common?
Give up? The answer is Sarah Brightman.
Gifted with a glistening, ice-carved soprano known the world over, the 48-year-old Briton began her eclectic career in the late 1970s as a member of the dance troupe Pan’s People and, later, Hot Gossip (even recording a cover of the 1963 teen-pop confection “My Boyfriend’s Back.”
Brightman made the transition from light-as-air pop music onto the stage and the London debut of “Cats,” where she met Lloyd Webber, whom she would marry in 1984 (they divorced in 1990). For his then-wife, Lloyd Webber created one of the most indelible musical roles of the 20th century, that of Christine Daae in his titanically successful 1986 musical “The Phantom of the Opera.”
Away from the glow of stage lights, Brightman remade herself as part of the “popera” vanguard, taking her place alongside other notable, classical-minded contemporaries like Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban and Charlotte Church.
This year has proved to be exceptionally busy for the vocalist: the release of two albums, “Symphony” and the holiday-themed “A Winter Symphony”; a cameo in the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies; a role in director Darren Lynn Bousman’s peculiar rock musical “Repo! The Genetic Opera” and a world tour promoting “Symphony.”
“I do have a real passion for what I do, and I love to make it as complete as possible,” Brightman says during a recent phone interview. “It’s hard at times because my career is often a whirlwind. But I actually do feel extremely privileged with what I do because, in a way, it’s my hobby.
“I enjoy various parts of it tremendously and get such a huge creative satisfaction out of it; it does allow me to go in all sorts of different directions.”
You’d be forgiven if you picked up a copy of “Symphony,” Brightman’s first album of new material in five years, and thought you’d grabbed an Evanescence album by mistake. The artwork, much like the music, reflects a darker, more Gothic tone. For that matter, “A Winter Symphony” may be one of the chilliest Christmas albums in recent memory.
But art does not always reflect life. Brightman simply claims that the more austere tone stems from having the luxury of time; some four years in all were dedicated, off and on, to “Symphony’s” creation.
“It was interesting to see my tastes and what I wanted to do for the album change completely during that time,” Brightman says. “Taking time is a good experience. So ‘Symphony’ ended up being a much more interesting album than had I completed it in a year. Everything about it is a much richer piece.”
While “Symphony” was afforded breathing room, Brightman had to hustle to wedge the recording of her first-ever holiday album, complete with bombastic treatments of “Silent Night” and “Ave Maria,” into her often hectic schedule.
“I’d always wanted to make a Christmas album, because I love that time of year,” Brightman says.
“We never really got it together because ... it was a timing issue. I finally got to the point where I said, ‘I don’t care anymore - I’ve got to make a Christmas album.’ What I didn’t expect was how I would feel trying to make a Christmas album during the summer months in Europe.”
Brightman’s summer wasn’t exclusively devoted to sonically evoking the dead of winter - she also took time out to travel to Beijing and perform “You and Me” (in both Mandarin Chinese and English) with Chinese vocalist Liu Huan. It marked the second time the singer has appeared at the Olympics: in 1992, she and Jose Carreras performed the soaring “Amigos Para Siempre” at the closing ceremonies in Barcelona, Spain.
For her part, Brightman - who admits that travel is “the most difficult aspect of (her) career” - said her role in this year’s Olympic ceremonies was minor, crediting her Chinese hosts with making the event quite painless.
“It was a lovely experience,” she says. “It was very different than anything else I’ve gone to, I suppose because ... I think it was being surrounded by all those people who had worked for so many years on it and I came in on the tail end of it. It was their moment of showing it all off and you could feel the emotion of all the people that were around you and what was going on.”
In another unlikely turn, Brightman makes her American feature film debut as Blind Mag in the eclectic, eccentric rock musical “Repo! The Genetic Opera,” which also stars Paris Hilton and Paul Sorvino. Bousman, who directed two sequels in the bloody “Saw” films and is reportedly set for a sixth installment, had his mind set on Brightman from the early going.
“I don’t really perform in movies,” Brightman says. “I’ve done bit parts and things ... but not a proper feature in America. Darren just called me out of the blue and said, ‘I’d really, really like you to come over and do this part; you’re perfect for me. I’ve been watching all this stuff on YouTube and your Web site - you’re perfect for it.’”
Brightman took some convincing, as she was in the midst of finishing up “Symphony,” but once Bousman described the film to her, she signed on and soon found herself on a Toronto soundstage.
“It was a part I felt I really could get hold of and work with,” Brightman says. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done it, I don’t think.”
The idea of Brightman swapping lines and belting out lyrics with Hilton is bizarre, but the songstress, who recently caught a screening of the film in Hamburg, Germany, insists that the finished product is far from a pop cultural train wreck.
Hamburg “was the first time I’d seen it ... with a normal audience coming in to watch,” Brightman says. “I was expecting to go ‘Oh, God’ and not be able to look at myself, but I loved it; I had a really good evening. Darren’s a good director and he really put everything into this. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s different.”
The twists and turns in Brightman’s career don’t strike her as particularly strange, especially given her more than 30 years in the music business. Her versatility and stunning vocal prowess mark her as one of the very few singing stars who isn’t on a first-name basis with the public.
Yet her fervent fan base, considerable artistic clout and an estimated 26 million records sold provides some measure of comfort, a safety net that’s allowed her to make unconventional choices and push the boundaries of blending pop music and steadfastly traditional opera.
“I think that has come from just having a very long career,” Brightman says.
“Obviously, I’ve moved during that time into many styles of music - some I’ve actually moved into myself, others have come by default - (and some) helped you decide on certain other areas you wouldn’t have even thought of going into. You take a lot on board during a long period of time in music.”
But nothing brings as much warmth to Brightman’s voice as talking about her fans. The conviction she brings to her craft belies her otherwise genteel nature.
“I want (audiences) to enjoy the music,” Brightman says. “That’s what we’re there for as artists: to enjoy ourselves and to create wonderful, entertaining situations for people to enjoy, be sad about (or) whatever emotions they want to get out of it.”
// Notes from the Road
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