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When opera singers turn to folk and pop

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As long as opera singers have been giving recitals or making records, there has been a corner of their performing realms devoted to their native folk music. One of the most enjoyable examples of this comes from Greek mezzo Agnes Baltsa, who treats us with ``Songs My Country Taught Me'' (Deutsche Grammophon digital CD 419 236-2) - a bewitching selection of 11 songs, all of which were written in this century, many within the past few decades. Musically, the selections are diverse and richly hued, and all exude a certain plangency that makes each one so moving.

The orchestrations feature a variety of Greek instruments, all blending in a singular way both to complement the singing and create a haunting aura within the melody. Miss Baltsa is in splendid voice.

The recording is a model of how to engineer such albums. My only criticism is that it, too, offers a mere 47 minutes of music, which is no longer enough music in this digital era.

DG has also released ``Fiesta Mexicana,'' with tenor Francisco Araiza singing the songs of his homeland (digital CD 419 193-2). It is a fun 49 minutes, without being in the same league as the Baltsa release. Araiza's voice has a certain clouded quality in all but its upper range, and as miked here, the instrument is not consistently beautiful.

Nevertheless, the music is upbeat, Araiza has a lot of fun making us care about it, and that is always welcome for the listener.

More recently, some of the biggest stars have been looking at popular music with an eye to the added income these releases will put in their personal coffers. The most prominent example of this is soprano Kiri Te Kanawa - prominent, though not necessarily successful, in the so-called ``crossover'' world.

Her ``Blue Skies'' album with Nelson Riddle (London, CD, 414 666-2) has the unusual distinction of being virtually unlistenable because of her forcedly unoperatic approach to singing, and Riddle's overbearingly heavy orchestrations. Her contributions to the all-star ``South Pacific'' (CBS Records MK 42205) are better than expected, though a bona fide American singer would have sounded more comfortable in this music.

And now we have ``Kiri Sings Gershwin'' - a title that, according to the silly essay inside the CD booklet, ``says it all.'' Actually, it says very little. Opera singers do not usually bridge the gap between opera and Broadway very gracefully, and Miss Te Kanawa is less adept at it than others. Although Te Kanawa is in very good voice, the engineering is ghastly; the soprano, placed in a dry sound booth, sounds breathy and totally removed from the orchestra.

Conductor John McGlinn tries to keep the songs rooted in their theatrical contexts, which means he keeps tempos quite peppy. In a song like ``The Man I Love,'' Te Kanawa sounds quite literally out of breath, so fast is the pace.

In ``Summertime,'' she does an extraordinarily exact Leontyne Price imitation. And, at just over 46 minutes, it is a very stingy selection, particularly for compact disc.

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