My Secret Passion: The Arias

Michael Bolton

Sony, 1998

REVIEW BY: Peter Piatkowski


On the 11th episode of the fifth season of The Nanny, Michael Bolton made an appearance to promote his then-new album, My Secret Passion: The Arias, a bewildering collection of opera. Up to that point in 1998, Bolton was known for his bombastic power ballads—his inimitable howl belting out soul-pop shouters like “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You” and “Time, Love, And Tenderness” as well as his keening rendition of “When A Man Loves A Woman.” Critics weren’t kind to his wailing white-man soul, but audiences didn’t care, buying the guy’s albums by the truckloads (his 1991 album, Time, Love, & Tenderness sold an astounding 16 million copies).

So, even if self-appointed rock music gatekeepers were content to drag Bolton, he had built an enviable career that occupied an oversized niche. He found a familiar sound and stuck with it. So, for some fans, his opera album was a big surprise. Though My Secret Passion implied that he kept this side of him under wraps, he didn’t exactly hide his love of classical music. He appeared on one of Luciano Pavarotti’s Pavarotti & Friends concerts, duetting with the legendary tenor on the Leoncavallo aria, “Vesti la giubba” and he joined the rest of the all-star cast for the show’s finale, a rousing rendition of “Nessun Dorma.” And in 1997, Bolton took the “pop” slot in the fourth Christmas In Vienna show, performing with opera greats Plácido Domingo and Ying Huang.

These excursions into the world of classical music felt like exercises in high culture, something some pop stars do to show off their range. But Bolton wasn’t content to merely be a guest warbler at a classical concert, he wanted to headline his own show, which leads us to my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 My Secret Passion, an LP devoted to work by composers like Puccini, Massenet, and Verdi. It’s a rather dizzying and audacious detour in his discography. It’s a mass of contradictions: it does come off as a rather self-indulgent novelty record of a pop superstar who can do anything at that point in his career; but he’s very reverent of the music he’s trying to sing; and the album was recorded in the 1990s when high-priced labels like Sony threw all kinds of cash at their superstar releases, and no expense was spared for My Secret Passion: Bolton is backed by the Philharmonia Orchestra of London and soprano great Renee Fleming makes an appearance (stealing “O Soave Fanciulla” without an ounce of mercy). It all makes for a lush and sumptuous record but one that raises eyebrows about how it came to be.

Because Michael Bolton’s very unique singing style has been a source of some mean-spirited swipes by critics, it’s understandable that anyone approaching My Secret Passion would do so with some skepticism. And that incredulity wouldn’t be wholly unjustified. As a pop singer, Bolton has his charms. His leather-lunged roar can wring some genuine moments from the otherwise so-so material he usually sang. His gigantic voice, his extravagant emotion, and his unabashed passion work in his favor when tackling opera music. He’s nowhere near the singer that Pavarotti or Domingo are—his soulful holler can sound wheezy and cracked when he wants to convey sobbing desire.

Also, great opera singers are also great actors—they aren’t merely singing challenging material, but they’re depicting characters. Bolton doesn’t really channel any personalities in his singing outside his own. In each song, his characterization is the same—in that there isn’t any. He’s simply singing the material. Technically, it’s okay—he doesn’t hit any sour notes, and his power and volume are fine.

All of this means that My Secret Passion is kind of a curio. Recorded 25 years ago, it was a seeming blip in his career; he soon returned to pop music despite the relative success of the record. What’s interesting about the response to My Secret Passion is that the album was not the huge stinker that Bolton critics anticipated (Bolton is a lightning rod for mean jokes, though to his credit, the guy’s also “in” on the joke).

Though opera is inherently camp, Bolton’s foray into opera is weirdly devoid of camp; he’s not approaching the work with a sense of humor or irreverence: instead, he’s going all in, being very serious, like a particularly ambitious student. In retrospect, it feels as if Bolton missed a golden opportunity to make a witty, grand, silly opera record, which would be perfectly suited to his overripe showboating and bellowing. If Bolton is ever interested in producing a sequel, a collection of comedy art songs may be just what he needs to do.

Rating: C-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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