Popstar To Operastar is back on. Hooray! Sorry to necro posts from my old MySpace blog, but here’s what I wrote about the original series in January 2010:
I was at a friend’s house yesterday and her mother was watching a video of the second instalment of Popstar to Operastar, which for the unitiated amongst you is a current UK TV show where pop singers are set the challenge of performing an operatic aria each week.
There’s been much vitriol aimed at it from within the classical music industry so far, claiming amongst other things that it demeans the process of classical training, that the musical standards are woefully low, and so on.
Having watched an episode, I can’t help feeling that these criticisms are missing the point a bit. This sort of Reality TV show, where a group of unqualified people are given a task to complete in an impossibly short space of time, is not about the quality of the end product; by definition, since the task (in this case, learning to sing an operatic aria to professional standard in one week) is designed to be impossible, the contestants will inevitably fail. I would like to think well of the viewers and assume that their interest is in watching the contestants struggle with the pressures of the task, about the highs and lows of a deliberately-intensified learning process (the ‘Reality’ element of the show), rather than in watching someone do something badly in public at the end of it.
To digress slightly, my gut feeling is that the current fashion for art as narrative therapy – the reinterpretation of the subject’s life as a (sometimes ongoing) story for the purposes of art and/or entertainment – is an unhealthy cultural dead-end, but that’s something I’ll return to at a later date. Assuming I’m not too busy dictating my autobiography to a ghostwriter that is.
Entertainment is an often-misused concept. A lot of football commentators make the glib assertion that ‘of course the game is all about entertainment’ and so on. I recall watching a televised pro-celebrity football match where Boris Johnson was brought on and immediately rugby tackled a German player. That was entertaining in its own way, but it would become pretty tiresome if it began happening in real football every week. There are people who do follow football as entertainment – they are the ones who prefer to watch goals-and-highlights programmes than to sit through a whole match, and who buy the ‘100 best sporting blunders’ compilations at Christmas – but they are missing out on the true enjoyment of it as a sporting contest, rather than a media spectacle.
Equally, Reality TV shows that deal with a given field are aimed at anyone but the avid followers of that field. A colleague commented about Popstar to Operastar that he felt it was unspeakably awful that his artform was being demeaned and so on, and ended by saying without apparent irony that at least he could watch Dancing On Ice to calm down. Presumably he finds it acceptable for the artforms of other professionals (in this case, ice skaters) to be demeaned in the name of entertainment.
People who watch Strictly Come Dancing might think that they are fans of dancing, but any genuine fan of dancing would be watching videos of Nureyev on YouTube rather than seeing a retired cricketer stumble his way through the bossa nova. Reality TV shows of this format are about entertainment, not appreciation of the artform – hence it making perfect sense that spectacularly bad dancers (John Sargent being the most glaring example) often get voted through – and they should be judged as such.
It’s in this sense that Popstar to Operastar, on the evidence thus far, falls down – there’s too much of the performances and not anywhere near enough of the ‘Reality’ sequences. That is probably a consequence of there being too many singers to get through each week at the moment, and so may be something that changes as the series progresses, as singers are voted off. The producers would do well to remember that even great operatic performances don’t really make great television – it was conceived as a theatrical artform, and it’s only in a live venue that it can truly be appreciated visually and, most of all, aurally.
The other problem with Popstar to Operastar is that it fails to break any new ground televisually. Reality TV is at least in part a technologically-driven phenomenon: Big Brother relies on the cameras being so unobtrusive that contestants soon forget that they’re there and behave ‘normally’. That’s the idea at least. So far PS to OS – several years down the line from Big Brother – is extremely conventional; there’s nothing in it that hasn’t been done by television a hundred times before over the last few decades.
But here’s some food for thought. My friend’s mother has never been to see an opera, and her response to having watched and enjoyed the first two episodes of Popstar to Operastar was to start looking in her diary and seeing when she might be able to come and see Scottish Opera’s production of La Boheme this season. At a time when, in order to survive at all, professional opera needs every audience member it can get, we might do well to concentrate on attempting to harvest what television is sowing, rather than questioning the quality of the seed.