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A Touch of Class : Grand Opera Hits the Spot for TV Commercials : Advertisers are rediscovering that the music of Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and Catalani can thrill--and perhaps sell--as no other music can.

May 21, 1991|WALTER PRICE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — A beautiful couple eye each other in an elegant dining room while "Un bel di" from "Madama Butterfly" is heard. The man leans on the table and all the formal place settings crash to the floor.

Captured by classy visuals and Puccini's memorable music, the viewer is startled to discover that it's a television commercial for stain-resistant carpet.

Another widely aired commercial--again with music from Puccini--opens with a shot of the Brooklyn Bridge as the great tenor aria, "Nessun dorma" from "Turandot," soars on the soundtrack. This time it's a commercial for an airline.

Advertisers are rediscovering that the venerable music of Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and Catalani, among others, can thrill--and perhaps sell--as no other music can. Today, bits and pieces of the music of these masters increasingly is being used to sell everything from detergents to airline tickets to toilets.

Two of the most popular commercials now being aired nationally involve great Puccini arias, spine-tingling works that can freeze attention even in TV's vast wasteland of clutter. Ironically, neither was scripted initially with opera, which has been used over the years to suggest class and status.

David Johnson, vice president at the giant New York ad firm BBDO, explained that the visual for DuPont Stainmaster was shot in Los Angeles before the search for the music began. Johnson said that to use or commission a contemporary piece of pop or classical music and have it performed by top artists could have pushed expenses as high as $150,000. Typically, music uses 5%-10% of a 60-second commercial's budget.

Johnson and his creative team decided on opera "because it moved the film." They will not identify the soprano ("it implies endorsement"), but any aficionado can tell you it is Renata Tebaldi. They paid a licensing fee of "between $15,000 and $20,000 to London Records." The recording company would not divulge how much of that went to Tebaldi directly.

BBDO and the client were so pleased with the result they did another one, using "Babbino caro," this time in a voiceless jazzed up version in which a couple engage in an erotic food fight in an elegant SoHo apartment. The same director, Joe Pytka of Venice, who had also done a Tott's Champagne commercial, was responsible for both.

Delta Airlines has a commercial running now (prepared by BBDO in Atlanta) using "Nessun dorma," made even more popular lately by the hit recording "Carreras Domingo Pavarotti in Concert" and the repeated airings of the video on PBS. Tenor Luciano Pavarotti sings the Puccini work--twice--including a 3-minute final encore.

Greg Dearth, the creative director, and his Los Angeles film director, Fred Peterman, remember they were ambivalent about opera or New Age music for the spot. They went with the aria because it gave them the chance to create a more lyrical mood as the Brooklyn Bridge was shown.

When Pavarotti's managers were approached, they were at first offended that anyone would think the superstar would do a commercial. Then they asked "zillions" of dollars. So BBDO looked elsewhere.

They hired a 37-year-old Los Angeles tenor, Steve Amerson, who has sung on the Oscar telecast, with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and at Hollywood Bowl.

The decision was made to record in a studio rather than use an existing recording because the creative people wanted to make changes in the music (avoiding the high B natural at the climax for one). "They always call me when they need a voice with lots of vibrato. I got SAG scale and so far I've made about $4,000. Not as much as the $10,000 I got when I did a pseudo-aria for a Honda commercial," said Amerson, who has also recorded film soundtracks but spends most weekends flying across the country singing oratorios in church recitals.

Most studio singers get both a recording fee and a usage fee. If and when a spot goes national they can do quite well. Licensing for a commercial recording is negotiated on a case-by-case basis, according to the contracts of the artists involved.

To the chagrin of everyone, it was discovered after the commercial was finished that "Turandot" was not public domain and a publisher's fee had to be paid. The work, written in 1926 after copyrights were enacted, is owned by the Milan, Italy-based publisher Ricordi.

"It was a reasonable fee, however," Dearth said, "considering what United Airlines had to pay for 'Rhapsody in Blue.' " Warner Bros. Music Corp., which holds the rights to the Gershwin catalogue, was paid $300,000 in 1987. And compare that to the $120,000 fee for one year's use of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" for California Raisins.

Ad account executives say one reason advanced for using opera and classical music in advertising was that they lend a touch of class to the product.

A more practical element is that such music is almost invariably public domain and exempt from commissioning and royalty payments. Interest has grown to such an extent that today PolyGram Classics, the umbrella firm that owns such recording giants as Philips, London and Deutsche Grammophon, has a two-person office in Los Angeles whose sole purpose is to sell its catalogues to movie studios and advertising agencies.

Most of the creative people interviewed were not particularly operaphiles but showed a sensitivity to linking sound and image.

Sometimes it's all left to chance. Asked how the final decision was made about one piece of music, a creative director stated simply: "It was the wife of the client's CEO. She just liked it. As to why we use opera at all, why not?"

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