And he's not a bad singer

Jose Cura's good looks are the latest weapon in the battle to create the next generation of male opera stars.

It all started with a woman, a cello and a chaise-longue: Ofra Harnoy and her instrument locked in an embrace so intimate, so satisfied, that only the post-coital cigarettes were missing. Classical music took longer than most industries to acknowledge the pulling power of pheromones, but in 1990 - more than 20 years after Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland - it shed the white tie and started to run, naked, through the wild woods of mass marketing. From Anne-Sophie Mutter's bare shoulders to the panda eyes of the Medieval Baebes, this was the era of the divas.

It all started with a woman, a cello and a chaise-longue: Ofra Harnoy and her instrument locked in an embrace so intimate, so satisfied, that only the post-coital cigarettes were missing. Classical music took longer than most industries to acknowledge the pulling power of pheromones, but in 1990 - more than 20 years after Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland - it shed the white tie and started to run, naked, through the wild woods of mass marketing. From Anne-Sophie Mutter's bare shoulders to the panda eyes of the Medieval Baebes, this was the era of the divas.

But what about the men? We had Kennedy's squiggle-like name-changes and his spiky hair. Simon Rattle had a kind of hippie chic with his Jackson Five coiffure. But the singers were lagging behind in the image race - wide of girth, stiff of stature and woefully straight of dress. It took a World Cup and a long top B to launch Mr Big into mass appeal, but Pavarotti took two of his mates with him. The Three Tenors were (briefly) the Spice Girls of opera, but even football couldn't really do it for the primo uomo and sales started to fall again. So what was left? Sex. It had worked for the girls, after all.

Italy gave us Andrea Bocelli, the soft-voiced, blind romantic, and pretty- boy Alagna; but he's very, very married (to soprano Angela Georghiu) and not terribly tall. Both Italians are said to stir up "maternal feelings"; but where do you find an opera singer with a six-pack? Argentina. Jose Cura, tall, dark and handsome, a youthful 36 years, a body-builder, a Latin smoothie to challenge even Antonio Banderas, all the usual interests (likes football), GSOH (gives bitchy soundbites about his competitors), tenor, conductor and composer. Cura, strong of voice, talent and looks, is Warner Brothers's miracle drug for the ailing industry and, according to some, he knows it.

Soon, there will be no getting away from Cura. Next month he is the subject of a South Bank Show, and Verismo, his third solo album, a collection of 19th-century Italian tenor standards, is set to be heavily marketed.Cura's press pack comes complete with a glossy photo, head inclined downwards like the generic haircut pictures in a thousand provincial barbershops, designer stubble, a wolfish grin, and more styling gel than Ross Geller circa 1995.

But is he sexy? This may seem irrelevant. Surely the question is "Can he sing?" and yes, he can, but a few calls to people in various areas of the classical music industry confirmed that I, my female friends, my gay male friends and probably my mum too may be the target audience for tenors.

Traditionally the marketing wisdom has been that women buy books and men buy CDs. The trouble with classical music is the repetition of core repertoire, which is usually already covered in its audience's record collection. How do you persuade even the most die-hard opera lover to buy yet another recital disc?

Neil Evans, editor of Classic CD, finds the push for a new three tenors, or even a fourth one, every interesting. "I think they're trying to look at a new market," he says. "Whether it's there or not is debatable but from the interviews I've seen and from how they're pushing him, they are big on the macho, moody figure. Bocelli, Alagna and Cura are certainly being marketed in terms of mass appeal, in a sexual, romantic way. There's always been the Mario Lanza type, the popular light tenor - but Cura is more Clint Eastwood.

"The thing with Cura is he's quite able to acquit himself with serious opera aficionados as well. I'm a fan, I'm afraid. I don't feel with him that the marketing is outstripping his abilities, which you do get with a lot of musicians. At the end of the day, whether it's classical music or any other market, the product has to be good. With Jose Cura you've got a genuine talent who combines compelling acting skills, a wonderful voice and just happens to be highly marketable."

The record companies admit that good looks help. "Who would you rather have sing to you?" asked Talia Hull of Warner Brothers, quite reasonably. But Warner Brothers and EMI (the company of both Alagna and the pale- and-interesting Ian Bostridge) deny a conscious move to hype up the sexiness of their tenors - to women or men.

Bostridge, the most heavily promoted of the young English tenors, is a curious alternative tothe more obvious va-va-voom of the Latin lover. His career is built principally on Lieder recitalsand relatively little operatic exposure, so Bostridge's profile has had to be set in a differentniche. EMI's response has been to have Bostridge loitering diffidently in black turtle-necks, likean academic Hugh Grant. The company's uncharacteristically cautious comment on this departure from glitz and glamour was that Bostridge has "quite a few female fans".

EMI was recently featured in Private Eye over the homoerotic photographs of scantily clad "pretty young things" from its press department that it used to illustrate Szymanowski's King Roger. But Theo Lap, EMI's head of marketing, says he is uninterested in chasing the pink pound. "I don't think it's necessary. The gay audience and the gay population will already have a natural interest in classical music. They always have done, so they're even easier to reach than other groups. It would be money wasted."

So that's that then? Not according to one record industry executive, who wished to remain nameless but who reminded me of the high-camp photo- story that Vanity Fair ran way back in February 1995 to coincide with Farinelli, the ultimate castration-anxiety movie. Six male altos (Chance, Asawa, Gall, Ragin, Minter and Daniels) were presented in full 18th- century maquillage, draped across crushed velvet, luxuriantly lit and photographed by Pascal Chevallier, with the (we hope) tongue-in-cheek title "The High Boys of Opera".

"It's definitely there in the counter-tenor market," my source told me. "The packaging of Andreas Scholl's Heroes CD is disgraceful! You don't need this. Decca is up to something, and I think it will rebound." Aside from the allegedly camp portraiture of the (happily married and stolidly butch) Scholl, the executive believes that ladies of a certain age are the main target - 36-plus and Italian-American.

"The men are the thing at the moment," he went on. "In the 1960s it was the sopranos. These days, basses are out of it, so it's baritones, which means Dmitri Hvortovorsky who, if you look at his Phillips covers, is marketed as the yummy side of Russia, Bryn Terfel - your original Green Man - and tenors. Tenors have always been sold on their charm, particularly their Latinate charm. I don't think anyone tried to sell Pavarotti or Domingo as sex objects; but women melt when they meet them, they really do. Alagna is interesting because EMI have tried to market him-plus-Georghiu as love's young dream. I think there has definitely been a conscious attempt at that." So Roberto and Angela are the Tom and Nicole of opera. What about Cura - does he have what it takes? "Oh absolutely: (a) he's a very good tenor and (b) he's a really good musician. Of the younger tenors he is by far the most complete."

Things bode well for Cura. He has been steadily working for more than 15 years, and his live performances have consistently been acclaimed. In addition to the high Cs he is a competent conductor and a rather good orchestrator and composer. "It's not Hollywood! I wasn't discovered overnight in a pizza restaurant!" he snapped once with a none-too-subtle dig at Alagna's starry-eyed story. Verismo - operatic for "sh-- happens" - will probably be that rare beast: a popular success that has critical backing too.

Though Rodney Milnes of Opera magazine says he finds Cura's vanity astonishing - referring to his alleged habit of presenting only his left profile to the camera - he admits he's "a bloody good singer". Milnes is unconvinced that the phenomenon of the Three Tenors can or should ever be repeated. "I don't think it's all that operatic, honestly. The failure of Turandot at Wembley proved that. They are two different markets. They're selling records but they're not necessarily doing the art of opera any good. Cura is the strongest candidate for the fourth tenor if there has to be one, because he's a very good singer. If he does have sex appeal, then you can't blame the record companies for selling him that way. He knows it." "There is a definite push with operatic stuff to appeal to people who want to buy in a bit of culture, the nouveau riche, the women who want to buy a little bit of culture for their house," added the executive.

I researched the effectiveness of this approach with my girlfriends - all opera-goers, all CD-buyers, all - I liked to think - sophisticated women, unlikely to be taken in by a pretty face.

The quiz was straightforward: given a list of operatic "hunks" (all mentioned above), do you find them sexy? Yes/no. Of course, they broke the rules and several mentioned Simon Keenlyside, the unhyped British baritone.

The scores went like this. Domingo: 2. Scholl: 2 (plus one "Yes, if he'd take off those stupid glasses). Daniels:1. Hvorostovsky: one "Oh god, yeah!" Cura: one "ish". Alagna, Pavarotti, Bocelli and other candidates: nil.

Whatever the vocal merits, in tests nine out of 10 CD-buying women still prefer Denzel Washington. Good luck, boys!

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