It is easy to make fun of ITV1’s new show, Popstar to Operastar. The budget is low, the standards are lower, the celebrity judges are almost as short on celebrity as they are on expertise, and the contestants are suitably ill-equipped for the challenge ahead of them.

I’m trying really hard not to take the bait for three reasons:

1) When we say “you don’t understand how difficult opera is” we mostly just make ourselves look like snobs trying to protect our precious music from being enjoyed by people who don’t understand it on as many levels as we do. Katherine Jenkins sells more records than Rolando Villazon. Popular opera is a thing. There are people out there that like it. We should probably spend our time trying to understand it instead of complaining about it.

2) The execution is no worse than almost anything else on British TV. This mess isn’t a comment on the state of classical music. It’s an example of the state of television, where an increase in bandwidth has fragmented the audience, and falling ad revenues have cut the budget for everything. Of course they wouldn’t do this well. They hardly do anything well any more.

3) The show only narrowly misses the point. Should an insufferable interior decorator be able to judge a good performance? Yes, he should, but only if there’s a good performance in front of him. I’ve always taken the position that most opera singers aren’t good enough to sing opera. I’ll admit that’s an extreme viewpoint, but Danny from McFly doesn’t stand a chance. They should make Rolando Villazon and Katherine Jenkins sing to the panel of novices, and have the audience guess what the hell they’re singing about. The person that convinces them that “La donna e mobile” isn’t about elephants gets to keep their career. I know which one I’d be betting on.

The trailer (consuming 85% of the budget) makes it look quite fun.

The show itself is excruciating.

In case you have any doubt at all about the sacrifices Katherine Jenkins will make for her art (and what passes for quality entertainment these days), skip to the end of this clip to see, well, I’m not even going to try to describe it. Europeans: this sort of thing is the reason Americans think we’re weird.


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  1. February 10, 2010

    It’s easy to make fun of Popstar to Operastar – but rather more difficult to justify that. The budget isn’t low, it’s large. The panel is a huge celebrity with nothing to say (Meat Loaf) a nobody who will become celebrated as he has something to say (Villazon) and two others instantly recognisable to the core audience. The performers are genuine performing musicians, not “faking it” nobodies.

    I’m also trying really hard not to take the bait for two reasons:

    1) When we say “you don’t understand how difficult opera is” we mostly just make ourselves look like snobs. The problem is that the audience aren’t getting any OPERA from the show in the first place, irrespective of the irrelevance that is the difficulty of performing it.

    2) The point of the show is to generate entertainment content that will a) fill the hour of broadcast and b) give the phone voters [and social networking=marketing sites] a focus for transacting. The quality of the content is irrelevant, naturally – but then the voting is not being cast on the quality of performance but the audience’s response to the ‘reality’ element of the show, the personal drama of the performers being fish out of water.

    3) The show might only narrowly miss the point, but it does so in a highly canny fashion. It’s carried out in a bet-hedged manner in which it is impossible to argue effectively against anything being lacklustre, dishonest or simply crap without seeming like a killjoy. It makes a Teflon-coated virtue of its own mediocrity.

    I agree with you that the standards are lower than the budget might appear to be. The problem is that the audience implicitly understand that the programme is not about opera at all. It’s just a hook. The only way to deal with this lazy co-opting of opera is to ignore it or to damn it unequivocally. This is what Christiansen did in the Telegraph, attacking baby Villazon along with the bathwater of the show, even though, in an earlier article, he recognised that Villazon is opera’s one hope of coming out of the show with any credibility.

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