Critics carp as Sarah sings - all the way to the bank

By Teri Fitsell

Say the name Sarah Brightman and people go into either ecstasies or agonies over the songbird's musical contribution. To some, her classically trained, multi-octave voice is divine; to others, merely the irritating trill of a wannabe diva.

Whatever your opinion, Brightman is riding high in charts around the world with her two latest solo CDs, Time To Say Goodbye (from which she had the titular hit single with Andrea Bocelli) and new release Eden. They stand at No 5 and No 6 in the New Zealand charts.

Speaking from Toronto, latest stop in an exhausting and exhaustive tour which began in February, Brightman "is looking forward to home [in Hamburg with German partner and producer Frank Peterson] and family and friends ... and a rest." Talking of rest, on such a long tour how does she look after the voice?

"My voice," she corrects. "Sorry, I don't call it `the voice' or `the instrument' - that would only be pounced upon as horribly pretentious."

Brightman has good reason to be wary of being pounced on, having been the recipient of some stinging attacks over the years. Her love-loathe relationship with critics began 20 years ago when she was a Top of the Pops dancer and had a hit with the dreadful I Lost My Heart To a Starship Trooper.

That might have been forgiven by the press had she had the good grace simply to disappear. But she went on to marry Andrew Lloyd Webber, no less, and had the further effrontery to transform herself from pop flash-in-the-pan to classical singer.

Lloyd Webber even wrote for her the role of Christine Daae in Phantom of the Opera. When the hit show transferred from London to Broadway, he also refused American Equity's demand that an American play the part, saying that unless Brightman did it the show would not go on.

In a more popular couple such gestures would surely have been interpreted as romantic and touchingly loyal. Lloyd Webber and Brightman, however, merely copped a lot of flak about nepotism, and Brightman's performance was given some stinging reviews.

Brightman has said of the Phantom: "It's something that will go on giving a lot of people pleasure, even though I didn't have a lot of pleasure doing it."

She and Lloyd Webber went through an amicable divorce and Brightman began what she terms "my search for my own place in the musical world."

Six years ago she was joined in the search by Peterson.

"We worked together for 18 months before becoming romantically involved."

She moved from England (though she still has a flat there), and set up home in Germany, partly because of Peterson but also, she admits, "because nobody knew me there so I felt I could start again."

They know her there now. "My duet with Andrea Bocelli, Time to Say Goodbye, last year became Germany's most successful single ever," she says.

It was also the starting-point for her album of the same name, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and consisting of a mix of classical, traditional and pop music.

The latest album, Eden, has a similar variety of musical styles, from Puccini to Richard Marx. Brightman sees Eden as a sort of personal homecoming where "everything is in tune."

"The ideas, the creations are mine and the music is much more me," she says. "It has given me far more confidence. I trust myself and am not nearly as worried about what might be expected of me as I was before."

While the mix is eclectic, there is still a certain inevitability about some of the tracks. Halfway though you find yourself thinking, "Why doesn't she just get on with it and do Titanic's My Heart Will Go On?" Then she does - but in Italian, Il Mio Cuore Va.

Emotional blockbusters aside, a purer highlight is the rendition of Ennio Morricone's Nella Fantasia, the theme tune to The Mission soundtrack.

Somewhat courageously, given its overplay by three gents in penguin suits, Brightman also tackles Nessun Dorma.

"It's not usually done by a soprano," she says," and we're all used to those tenors roaring it out. But I've always felt there was a more delicate, more poignant interpretation."

That leads us back to the question of pop goes the opera, or the latest fashion for operatic soundbytes.

"I wouldn't presume to say that I was somehow popularising opera," she says. "I'm trained in it and do some classical pieces, but I am not on a par with someone who sings it fulltime.

"Opera has always gone in and out of fashion. The Three Tenors are a recent trend, but before them it was, say, Maria Callas or Mario Lanza who captured people's imaginations. I do like to capture imaginations but I want to do it with all kinds of music."

Maybe it's this desire to please all the people all the time that has the critics poised to pounce, but it is the CD-buying public who will have the last word.

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