NASHVILLE (Billboard) - Call it unique artistic vision or simply creative chutzpah, but few artists would feature such disparate duet partners as Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, Spanish vocalist Fernando Lima and Kiss' Paul Stanley on the same album.
Yet that's exactly what mega-selling English soprano Sarah Brightman does on "Symphony," which arrives in stores January 29 via Manhattan Records.
"I just wanted to back away from everything and do something a little different. That, of course, takes a little time," Brightman says of "Symphony," her first collection of new material in five years. "Sometimes you have to step back a little and create something new."
Innovation and reinvention have been trademarks of Brightman's 30-year career. Born in 1960, she began dancing at local festivals when she was only 3. By the time she was 16, she earned a spot in Pan's People, the resident dance troupe on BBC's "Top of the Pops." Her next step was as a member of progressive dance troupe and pop group Hot Gossip.
It was as lead singer for Hot Gossip that Brightman's recording career began with the 1978 hit "I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trouper," which propelled her to pop star status in the United Kingdom. Not content to reign on the pop charts, Brightman went on to forge a successful career in musical theater, most notably originating the role of Christine in ex-husband Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera" on the West End and later reprising the role on Broadway.
As a recording artist, Brightman has covered a wide territory, including pop, dance, opera and classical music.
"She created this genre that we now call 'classical crossover' or 'pop opera,"' Manhattan Records GM Ian Ralfini says. "She opened the door for other artists, including Bocelli, Hayley Westenra and Josh Groban. She was there first.
Indeed, since 1997, Brightman has scored 11 top 10 albums on Billboard's Classical Crossover chart, including two No. 1s and three No. 2s. But she modestly downplays her role in the classical crossover boom, preferring to speak of her love for her art.
"I'm very passionate about my classical music," she says. "I've also had a lot of success in popular music, like pop music and dance music. I've also worked for many, many years in theater. All these styles that I have worked within, especially in music theater, created something very unique to me."
According to her label, Brightman has sold 26 million records worldwide. The best-selling soprano in history, she's earned more than 150 gold and platinum certifications in 34 countries. Among her most successful albums are 1998's "Time to Say Goodbye," which has sold 1.4 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan; the title track is the best-selling single in German music history.
For "Symphony," Brightman headed to Germany to record with longtime producer Frank Peterson. "This album has such a new twist to it," Brightman says. "It has classical qualities in it that I've always enjoyed, but it has a slightly dark quality. Within everything that happens in life, there's a heavenly side to it and then there's a dark side to it. I know it sounds fairly abstract, but when you go through the album, you get this feeling of heaven and hell within it."
And while five years may be a long time for the industry to wait, Brightman believes that the preparation time served the music well. "I was involved much more in the songs than I normally (am) because I had more time to do so," she says. "For the last four years, I've been going all over the world and doing concerts and I've done a movie recently (the April release "Repo! The Genetic Opera"), which was great fun. So there have been lots of other things going on, but I did have lots more time to be involved in the writing side of it."
Has the turmoil and uncertainty in the world had an impact on her songwriting process? "Yes, of course it has," she says. "I think it has with a lot of people who are artists. It's very natural. All of those things are coming into our creative output because all human beings are touched by what is happening and they are becoming more and more aware."
In Peterson, Brightman has found a creative compatriot, skilled at helping the artist breathe life into the diversity of sounds that her repertoire comprises. "When you find collaborations with people that just work, they just work," she says, noting that she and Peterson have worked together so long they have developed a kind of shorthand between them. "I seem to be working with the same people for many, many years and relationships actually get better and the work becomes more deep because of it."
Brightman also enjoys forging new partnerships, such as the duet with Kiss' Stanley on "I Will Be With You (Where the Lost Ones Go)." "It's unlikely and likely," she says of the pairing. "There is obviously the very theatrical side, which we both have. It's interesting with rock music and with classical music -- there is a similarity there in a way. They are both very dramatic."
"Symphony" also marks the first time Brightman has worked with Lima. "His management asked if I'd be interested," says Brightman, who recorded "Passion" with the Spanish vocalist. "I listened to the song and I said, 'This is quite different for me to do, but I just feel it will work.' I went into the studio not knowing what was going to happen and really like what came out of it."
The duet with Bocelli on "Canto Della Terra" followed Brightman's appearance on Bocelli's recent PBS special in Tuscany.
"It's always wonderful working with him because years ago we did that love song called 'Time to Say Goodbye,' which became a hit all over the world. So there are treasured memories and the (new) song is very, very beautiful," she says. "I thought it would be a lovely song for this album. There's a lot of light and a lot of gold in this particular song.
"His voice and mine really blend. It's quite rare. I've sung with different duet partners all over the world -- classical, nonclassical -- and it's not very often where you come across a partner where the voices seem to fit with each other. And ours do."
To market and promote "Symphony," Manhattan Records is placing Brightman in a variety of high-profile situations to give her mass-market exposure. She sang from a float during Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and will be the featured vocalist on the NBC special "Fashion on Ice," which airs January 20.
Label executive Ralfini says there are plans to work a single to adult-contemporary radio, but the label hasn't yet decided which song. On the TV side, Brightman will shoot her own PBS special, slated to air during the March pledge drive.
Later in the spring, Brightman plans to launch a tour, a prospect that excites her.
"I think the secret to my success is the audiences," she says. "They come to see me and are really, really behind the projects. When I start albums, I can actually see the tours and how I'm going to create them and what I'm going to do. It's a big picture."