Not even classical music – noble, immortal and edifying –  can escape the harsh glare of consumer culture and all the expectations and stereotypes that come with it. For pop singers to be attractive is de rigueur, but what of classical music? The rule seems to be “if you’ve got it, flaunt it”, and we don’t just mean talent.

The reality of the increasingly challenged classical recording industry means that major labels are keener than ever for their signings to be not only musically gifted, but also bedroom-wall-friendly – or perhaps it’s more “desktop wallpaper friendly” in this day and age. Name and reputation aren’t always enough to make an album stand out on the crowded shelves.

These days, opera stars are the most scrutinised performers, as evidenced by Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini’s recent comments about heftier singers failing to embody romantic roles on stage. But instrumentalists are not immune to the marketing machine, and those who are easy on the eyes as well as on the ears are more likely to shift units and sell out concert halls.

It might be the way forward for the classical industry, but it is by no means a new attitude. Consider virtuoso composer-pianist Franz Liszt, whose bicentenary we celebrate in 2011: the most photographed man of the 19th century whose legions of adoring female fans threw their undergarments on stage at his concerts. That doesn’t even happen on Australian Idol.

In the 21st century, female classical musicians unquestionably face more pressure to look good than their male counterparts, a gender imbalance that extends well beyond the classical genre.

If it’s a travesty that great performers are often unfairly overlooked because they lack sex appeal, perhaps the flipside is that many prodigiously talented musicians are discovered and receive the full support their art deserves within this shrewd system.

There is a breed of serious classical stars (no crossover or popera admitted) whose musical message isn’t dumbed down, but rather enhanced, by certain physical attributes: Limelight presents the Top 12 in the pages that follow. Would they still be famous if they had been valued on music-making alone? You be the judge.

Miloš, guitar  

It’s not just the sun-kissed Mediterranean works on his debut album, the serenade-ready spontaneity of his guitar, his seriously smooth accent and the beauty of his homeland Montenegro – Miloš Karadaglić’s sheer talent and technique have made him a star. Like Björk and Midori, the charismatic 28-year-old goes by just his first name. He hopes to act as an ambassador for his instrument, bringing new audiences to the classical guitar. Most likely they’ll be swooning. 

Listen to this: Deutsche Grammophon 4779547

Amy Dickson, saxophone

This Australian-born saxophonist, still in her mid-twenties, was most recently spotted on stage at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music dressed like a Miss Universe contestant. It comes as no surprise, given she is sponsored by Armani and endorsed by a skincare company. The voluptuous tone and silk-spun phrasing she coaxes from her instrument could be an aural representation of Amy in the flesh. But there’s more to this artist than sax appeal – a trailblazer championing classical saxophone repertoire, she has collaborated with composers Philip Glass and John Tavener to make saxophone arrangements of their works, and continues to transcribe new music to play. It just goes to show you can do better than Kenny G when it comes to soprano sax star power.

Listen to this: RCA Red Seal 88697376792

Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor

In France, opera singer Philippe Jaroussky is worshipped like a popstar. This in itself is an unusual honour reserved for Lang Lang and an annointed few – but add the fact that we’re talking about a soprano countertenor specialising in early music and you have a rare bird indeed. What other singer could command more than one million YouTube views with a video of an obscure Vivaldi aria? The fresh-faced 33-year-old is blessed with crystalline tone and sinuous pipes in the highest male vocal range, an angelic, feminine sound that the uninitiated often find confronting coming from the opposite sex. Yet there is a thrilling control and virility about the way his voice soars, recalling how 17th- and 18th-century Italian castrati, bizarrely, enjoyed immense popularity with the ladies. But make no mistake: Jaroussky’s gift is all natural, and he’s all man. 

Listen to this: Virgin Classics 5099964192727

Alison Balsom, trumpet

When England’s delectable “trumpet crumpet” strode on stage at the Royal Albert Hall to collect the 2009 Classical Brit Award for Female Artist of the Year, she was wearing  £1 million of borrowed diamonds. The 32-year-old claimed the title again in 2011. Studies with Håkan Hardenberger gave the charismatic young trumpeter a solid foundation on both Baroque and modern instruments, allowing her to tackle the cornerstones of the trumpet repertoire from Albinoni to Haydn and Hummel, along with arrangements (often her own) of works by Bach, Paganini, Piazzolla and more. Her next album, scheduled for early 2012, will be dedicated to modern trumpet concertos.

Listen to this: EMI 4560942

Nicola Benedetti, violin

These days there is no shortage of bewitching young violinists in extravagant evening gowns – just look at Janine Jensen and Sarah Chang. When Julia Fischer left the PentaTone label for Decca, she was replaced, Hydra-like, with another seriously talented violin femme fatale: Arabella Steinbacher. Nicola Benedetti is one of the youngest and most alluring of this species to emerge in the past decade. Last year, the 24-year-old Scottish violinist launched the BBC Proms with her ravishing The Lark Ascending. She found fame as a teenager when she won the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition with Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto – not the most obvious choice of repertoire, and one that has set Benedetti apart from the pack. By the end of that year, she had signed a £1m six-album recordings contract with Deutsche Grammophon. She may pout spectacularly, but she has nothing to pout about.

Listen to this: Deutsche Grammophon 4764092

Eric Whitacre, composer

The world needs a choral music superstar, and Eric Whitacre is the man for the job. Undoubtedly the only composer in history with has a recording deal and a modeling contract, he has popularised the genre in a way no one else can. His rugged LA good looks may have helped turn his 67,000 Facebook followers onto contemporary choral music, but rest assured he is a fine composer-conductor to boot. The Juilliard-trained student of John Corigliano is best known for luminous, deeply moving vocal works including Cloudburst and A Boy and a Girl, and for the passionate online community outreach of his Virtual Choir project, formed entirely from YouTube clips of amateur singers performing his piece Sleep. Most recently, his celebrity cachet reached new heights when he collaborated with Hans Zimmer on the soundtrack to Pirates of the Caribbean 4. Contemporary music never looked so good.

Listen to this: Decca 2743209

Danielle de Niese, soprano

This Melbourne-born enchantress of Sri Lankan heritage became an instant star with her “come hither” Cleopatra in Glyndebourne’s remarkable 2005 Giulio Cesare. The Glyndebourne people certainly liked her: in 2009 she married Gus Christie, the opera festival’s chairman and grandson of its founder. Now 32, the full-voiced soprano has been thrilling audiences since she made her Met debut at the age of 19 as Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro.

Listen to this: Decca 4781511

David Fray, piano

Riveting performances of Bach make this 30-year-old pianist one to watch – and we don’t mind the chiseled jaw, dimples and cool Gallic charm either. David Fray has elicited comparisons to a young Glenn Gould with his eccentric rehearsal and performance antics, which include singing the melody line and hunching over the piano. His accent may prove irresistible to some, but watch out for the scene in the below documentary in which a violinist rolls his eyes at Fray’s typically French suggestion that the orchestra make their playing “more sensual, yes?” The pianist is married to maestro Riccardo Muti’s glamorous actress daughter Chiara.

Listen to this: Virgin Classics 3857872

Sol Gabetta, cello

If the girl next door was an international cello star… Argentinian Sol Gabetta won public and critical adulation at the 2004 Lucerne Festival as soloist with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Valery Gergiev. She was named Young Artist of the Year in the 2010 Gramophone Awards. The petite cellist has told Strings Magazine, “People think that if you are a girl with blond hair, it’s easier to start your career. They may be right, but after the start it’s much [more] difficult. Either you are really good, or the next Gabetta is coming and you wake up and you’re 30 years old, and forgotten. If you’re a boy, it may be more difficult in the beginning, but if you make a start it’s easier to stay.” At 29, her star is still rising, so we’d say she has nothing to worry about. 

Listen to this: RCA Red Seal 88697359622

Erwin Schrott, bass-baritone

Born in Uruguay, this bronzed, buff bass-baritone has been hailed as “the Brando of opera.” Winning Domingo’s Operalia competition in 1998 was his ticket to plum roles at La Scala, The Met and Covent Garden, where he has made a name for himself as a fine Mozartian and a “God’s-gift Figaro.” Schrott is also known for his hot-blooded Don Giovanni, but in real life he is a down-to-earth family man, married to opera darling Anna Netrebko with a young son, Tiago. The power couple often performs as a duo in concert.

Listen to this: Decca 4780473

Alina Ibragimova & Cédric Tiberghien

Although they are both spellbinding performers in their own right (not to mention photogenic), there is real chemistry between Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova and French pianist Cédric Tiberghien when they perform as a duo. These two bright young things were thrown together as part of the BBC New Generation Artists scheme in and, although not a couple, have been almost inseparable as chamber music partners ever since.

Trained at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England (Ibragimova and Nicola Benedetti played the slow movement of the Bach Double Concerto at Menuhin’s funeral), the 25-year-old violinist has garnered critical praise for her fiery Bach Sonatas and Partitas album on Hyperion and for her bold 2010 Proms premiere of a concerto by contemporary composer Huw Watkins. The power and raw energy of her playing belies her petite, porcelain doll-like physique. Later this year she will star in a short film, See Britain Through My Eyes.

Tiberghien trained at the Paris Conservatoire, where he won Premier Prix in 1992, aged just 17. He has more than 60 concertos under his belt and a record deal with fashionably French label Harmonia Mundi, which has released his discs of  Chopin and Brahms. With Ibragimova, he has recorded the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas from the pair’s live recital series at Wigmore Hall, and a sensual collection of Szymanowski works for violin and piano.

Listen to this: Hyperion CDA67703

Lara St John, violin

Perhaps more than any other serious classical musician, Canadian violinist Lara St John embraced her pinup status. Her racy cover art caused a stir, but the controversial image of St John posing with a violin partially concealing her bare chest on her 1996 debut was intended as a reflection of the way unaccompanied Bach completely exposes the performer. The disc sold 25,000 copies and subsequent albums have topped the iTunes classical charts. Before the crossover quartet Bond threw the rule of “no skin, no skank” out the window, Lara St John was the real deal: the original sex-kitten string sensation.

Listen to this: Well-Tempered Productions 5180

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