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‘Angelica’: Where Rock and Opera Meet As One

Guitar wizard Steve Vai doesn’t know Clif Magness very well, but he sure does admire the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter-producer’s gumption.

As he should.

Listening to the radio one morning a year and a half ago, Magness was enchanted by a version of ‘Ave Maria’ by Placido Domingo and the Vienna Boys Choir. That’s when a light bulb flashed above his head: Why not mesh opera with a contemporary rock sound?

Last October, his vision came true with the release of the Atlantic Records album, “Angelica,” pairing five sopranos with such renowned rock guitarists as Vai, Steve Stevens, Eric Johnson, Dweezil Zappa and Nathan East. Now, a half-hour documentary on the making of that album is appearing on PBS stations through February.

“It takes a lot of courage,” Vai said recently of Magness’ project. “You have to hold to your vision and just see it through. You have to call Steve Vai over and over again and Eric Johnson and (David) Foster. You have to hold to it and create it, see it through, patch it up, and that’s only the second phase. Then you have to go out and sell it. You have to give a guy like that a lot of credit, because it’s not easy.”

Dreaming up the idea was simple, Magness said. The hard part was trying to convey that vision in words to the participants and record company executives.

“That was the only stumbling block I had,” he said. “I had to make a demo of ‘Ave Maria’ instead of trying to describe it to people. But when I first demoed it, I did it sort of new age, with a soft drum loop. I played it for my wife and she said, ‘It’s a great idea, but you need to rock this out,’ so it was actually her inspiration for me to make it more hard-edged. Once I did that, I sent it to Val Azzoli at Atlantic, and he loved it. He called immediately and responded emotionally to it.”

The project, overseen by executive producer Carole Bayer Sager, was ambitious: Magness made new arrangements of arias from such opera classics as Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” “La Boheme,” Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreuer.” He then paired the guitarists with sopranos Julia Bonilla, Anita DeSimone, Sewell Griffith, Lori Stinson and Rebecca Semrau.

One of the album’s highlights doesn’t involve the opera singers: Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” featuring the Boys Choir of Harlem with Grammy-winning producer David Foster on piano.

On paper, uniting opera and rock may be a jarring idea, but the dramatic, melodic nature of both genres puts them on common ground.

“I think Mozart was the Prince of his time, unquestionably,” Magness said. “With that ‘Der Holle Rache (Queen of the Night)’ thing we do with Steve Vai, if you listen to the traditional reading of that, it sounds like a rock opera, very fiery and dramatic.

“We couldn’t compromise on the style. We had to have each aria sung almost right down to the quarter-note to how it’s traditionally sung but orchestrate it with other elements. For instance, we tried to do ‘Ave Marie’ in English, a Sheryl Crow-esque version of it, but it just didn’t work at all. Then you sing it in Latin, and it’s perfect.”

Vai’s rock pedigree is formidable. He was a student of guitar great Joe Satriani, played the intricate guitar parts in Frank Zappa’s band from 1979 to 1984 and was a member of ’80s hard-rock quintet Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth’s band and Whitesnake. His solo career includes a gold record for his 1990 instrumental album, “Passion and Warfare.”

Surprisingly, he studied classical music in college.

“A lot of beautiful melodies were written in the classical genre, but to me they get lost in the orchestrations,” Vai said. “The violin is a beautiful instrument, but nothing really cuts like a guitar. When Clif approached me with this project, I thought it would be beautiful. The guitar sings so well. One thing led to another and I started getting excited about it.

“Something like this, it’s an artistic statement. For real music lovers, it’ll be something they can listen to and enjoy. There’s a place for everything. There’s a place for ‘Angelica,’ and there’s a place for rap and Marilyn Manson and Beethoven and Bach.”

Early on, Magness discovered that many of his friends were listening to opera at the end of recording sessions or at parties. He then took a crash course on opera and developed his own affinity for the timeless music.

“One of the things I wanted to do was get some young, gorgeous sopranos,” Magness said, “because I wanted to dispel the myth of the large Viking-looking woman with horns on her head, because that’s sort of everyone’s preconception of what opera is.”

Magness’ next goal is to get all the artists together to perform the selections live. In the meantime, he has his hands full this year producing newcomers Jude Christodal and Judith Owen. He also continues to write; in 1990, he shared a Grammy Award with Quincy Jones, Glen Ballard and Jerry Hey for their arrangement of “The Places You Find Love,” off Jones’ “Back on the Block” album. Magness’ songwriting credits include Wilson Phillips’ “Impulsive” and Jack Wagner’s “All I Need.”

Vai, meanwhile, is busy archiving his solo material for a series of upcoming releases on his own label, Light Without Heat.

“After that, I want to make a proper studio album, a really intense guitar record,” he said. “I want every song on this to make a real statement in the guitar department.”

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