You can call us babes

From busking in Covent Garden to chart success, Opera Babes tell Lynne Walker how life on the road has propelled them into the musical fast lane
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The Independent Culture

The first thing to work out is which Opera Babe is which. One's a soprano; the other's a huskier mezzo. One is fair; the other dark. But as Rebecca Knight and Karen England agree, while their voices are not difficult to distinguish, they've changed hair colour so many times that it's easy to be confused. "We're back to blonde and brunette now, so it's easier to know who's who," says Knight, the blonde and the soprano. Each woman is quite different in looks and personality, but their identities have become blurred in the four years since their career as a duo was born.

Whose idea was the name, with its slightly patronising implications? "It certainly wasn't ours," laughs Knight, who does more of the talking. The pair first became aware that it had stuck when Des Lynam introduced them as Opera Babes to the 72,000-strong crowd at the first FA Cup final at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. That was in 2001, when, as struggling young opera singers, they did a spot of busking in Covent Garden, central London.

The speed with which they became known still surprises them. England took the more conventional route, via London's Guildhall School of Music, doing auditions and getting small operatic roles. Knight, whose mother, Gillian Knight, is also a singer, trained as a dancer and didn't start singing seriously until her mid-twenties. She joined a company touring Mozart's Magic Flute in the US. While on the road, she found a soulmate in Karen England. Both just wanted to sing, and busking gave them the opportunity to brush up their duetting.

So was the FA talent-spotting in Covent Garden? "We made business cards and had quite a lot of propositions - some genuine and some others which we did not take up..." explains England. Then Knight had a phone call asking if they were free to sing in Cardiff - if so, the job was theirs.

When they led "Abide with Me" and the National Anthem at Cardiff, it was a baptism of fire. "It was baking hot and the noise was unimaginable," says England. "Trying to hear our introduction above a crowd bawling "You'll Never Walk Alone" was a challenge. Des Lynam was really nice to us, though." Within a fortnight they had been baptised by the red-tops, appeared on ITV's This Morning, had taken their act to Milan's San Siro stadium before a TV audience of 500 million, and were being asked to choose from five record deals.

"We didn't really understand what was going on," confesses England. "Nothing felt very real and we were the most naive girls on the planet. Everything happened in such a short time and we were forced into decisions without really understanding the consequences. We've learnt a lot about business in the past four years. Up until then it had just been fun."

That may be one reason why they've since parted company with Sony after releasing 2002's Beyond Imagination. Tracks range from the saccharine-sweet There's A Place - a vaguely spiritual-type setting of the famous largo from Dvorak's New World Symphony - to a frankly bizarre "Vibe Tribe Mix" version of the duet from Delibes's Lakmé. Even British Airways treated the popular duet with more respect when it hijacked it for commercial purposes. But the best classical music can stand any amount of repackaging; it just makes it more widely accessible, as even Mozart discovered. The CD took off, going straight to No 1 where it stayed for 11 weeks. On its worldwide release it entered the top of the classical charts and reached the US Billboard Top 10.

First and foremost they see themselves as a live act. "That's what we feel born to do and we've missed that. Sony never saw us perform live and we felt we'd been underestimated. At least we're free now to go out and do the kind of work we enjoy best." They recently appeared at a fund-raising gala in Los Angeles, billed alongside Placido Domingo. "We only had a week's notice, as they couldn't find out how to contact us."

How was Domingo? "Fun," they enthuse, "and we met loads of people: Sidney Poitier, Don Rickles, and they loved us and our red Frank Usher outfits." Ah yes, the dresses. Designers who have approached them include Matthew Williamson, who seduced them with his cobweb beading, rainbow palette and peacock and butterfly creations. "It's been great," admits Knight, "though frankly I'm more of a jeans person."

The first thing the baton-wielding Carl Davis asks them when they work together is what they're wearing, so that he can be a colour-coordinated conductor. "He's been terrific from the start, when some classical people were being a bit snooty and some friends and colleagues were warning us about the dangers of becoming populist." Davis has plans for the duo, challenging them with new repertoire such as the "Presentation of the Rose" scene from Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. He is also looking for an opportunity to cast them in the roles of Hansel and Gretel in a fully staged production of Humperdinck's fairy-tale work.

Both are delighted to be taking part in the Royal Albert Hall's Tsunami Relief gala. It will be the first time they've appeared as part of a line-up with other artists, all broadly classical with popular appeal for a wide range of people. Moscow hosts their next gig, then they're on to Brussels, Dubai, Mumbai and, before Vegas, back to Basingstoke. Considering how grounded they are, they're surprisingly vague about venues and the promoters. "We don't ask questions, we just put the date in our diaries and get on the plane. We love being on the road, performing." And what about the sniping in some areas of the media? "It's hilarious," they say defiantly, though England adds, "We didn't laugh at first though." Knight remarks, "I wouldn't mind if people just came to our show and judged us for what we actually do, rather than on some totally false notion that we prance about in wet T-shirts."

But babes grow older, so what will Opera Babes do next? "Both of us are keen to do more serious opera. But while we're having such a great time I think we'll do at least a couple more CDs," says Knight. Their voices, they say, have developed enormously in the past few years (both of them still take lessons from Knight's mother) and England appeared as Wellgunde, one of Wotan's babes, under Sir Simon Rattle in Wagner's Das Rheingold at the Proms last summer. The name Opera Babes has stuck but they see their act developing, mentioning an idea they tried out in Beirut, "a kind of Cirque de Soleil meets Opera Babes". They want to continue working together if at all possible, reeling off the roles in Mozart, Bellini and Bizet that they think would be ideal for a pair of babes with attitude.

Opera Babes join other stars of classical music for Classic Response, a benefit concert to enable SOS Children to help victims of the South-east Asia tsunami: Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020 7589 8212) 31 March, 7.30pm