As you clever readers may have deduced, Operatica melds opera and electronica. Not that using opera in electronic music is an entirely new proposition, as numerous DJs have sampled arias and overtures in their works. However, the series from E-Magine Entertainment features opera singers teamed with an electronic composer in the studio, performing new pieces and reinterpreting older works. No doubt, this is the sort of ambitious undertaking meant to “expose a new generation to opera, while bridging musical gaps and changing the way people think about music, etc”. Which is all good and well, but how original is it at this point to splice two genres of music together? And more importantly, does it sound any good?
If Operatica: Volume 1, the first release in the series is any indication, operatica is quite the mixed bag. Producer and arranger Lord Vanger teams up with diva Maureen O’Flynn for a work that shows promise, but too often overreaches and falls flat on its face. Vanger, perhaps feeling the pressure of bearing the operatica torch, attempts a vast, sweeping sort of work that covers the proverbial electronic rainbow: here’s some trip-hop, drum’n'bass, house, ambient and, heck, let’s throw in some hip-hop vocals while we’re at it! Lost in this frenetic attempt to create a techno cornucopia is Vanger’s own musical voice. He hits on five or six different styles, but all of them sound generic, as if he’s more concerned with creating specific “types” of songs rather than following a more creative spark that reflects his own personal style. The album is rife with predictable ambient rises, filtered vocals and drum’n'bass loops that sound like those in hundreds of songs written before. For a project intended to create something vital and exciting, Vanger retains an awfully tight grip on standard electronic conventions.
It is O’Flynn’s voice that provides the album’s saving grace. Her melancholy, alluring vocals glide with ease over the pulsing techno sounds. She does a nice job of singing dramatically, without going over the top and drowning out the music. Even in the weakest songs, Operatica remains bearable because of O’Flynn’s fine work. The best moments of the album come when Lord Vanger eases off on the throttle and lets the vocals carry the song. Unfortunately, these moments don’t come often enough.
“Ave Maria” opens the album with plenty of promise, O’Flynn’s haunting rendition complimented nicely by ambient effects. Even in this, one of the better tracks, the music is a bit typical, but it’s still a highly enjoyable piece. Vanger provides just enough of a musical backdrop, and lets the vocals do the rest. It’s a nice setup for an album that could have been, if not revolutionary, certainly entertaining. However, it’s on the third track, “Melancholy Rose”, that he remembers Operatica is supposed to be a Big Important Album, and begins to push his concepts into overdrive. This, of course, is what lands him in trouble. Written by Vanger himself, “Melancholy Rose” starts off as what could almost be a club pop song, but then inexplicably breaks down into a sample of Pope John Paul II speaking, of all things. There’s a fine line between being daring and being silly and pretentious—guess which side Vanger comes down on.
After the nonsense on “Rose”, the simplicity of “L’Heure Exquise” and “O Del Mio Dolce Ardor” comes as quite a relief. And while “Charmed by a Rose” isn’t particularly memorable, at least there are no pontiff sightings. However, trouble pops up again with two more Vanger originals. “In the City” is reminiscent of some cautionary song from a Operatica shudder Operatica rock musical (“Get on your knees and pay the toll / Soon you’ll be thinking to sell your soul / In the city”). And then, in what has to be the worst move on the album, rap vocals are employed on “Get Off My Land”. Now don’t get me wrong, I love rap, just not from a guy who sounds like his last gig was with C and C Music Factory. The line “My name’s Lavar and I was born to rap” might be the best argument I’ve heard yet for keeping abortion safe and legal. After that, the album fades away with a series of songs that aren’t enthralling, but are thankfully Lavar-and-Pope-free.
The thing about an album like this is, it’s just interesting enough so that you’re left wondering what might have been. What if Vanger hadn’t tried to push so many concepts and just had some fun? What if instead of skipping around amongst “Opera’s Greatest Hits”, they had reinterpreted a single opera, creating a story on the album with different singers? Perhaps future Operatica releases might further expose the promise of combining the two genres. In any case, it’s hard to imagine such works carving out a significant niche in the electronic community. Imagine going to a rave and hearing some candy kid gush, “Dude, the DJ of Seville is spinning Puccini at midnight!”