The Art of Cultural Appeasement – The BBC’s Maestro At The Opera

In Classical Music, Danielle de Niese, Opera on April 30, 2012 at 7:16 am

According to a press release from the BBC, four ‘well-known’ personalities will ‘compete to conduct a complete Act of a legendary opera performance on the hallowed main stage of the Royal Opera House’ in the BBC’s Maestro At The Opera which starts on BBC Two on May 4.

The “brave trainees” are Josie Lawrence, Craig Revel Horwood, Professor Marcus du Sautoy and Trevor Nelson. Each will have a mentor in the form of an opera conductor – Sir Mark Elder – and they will “learn about working with orchestras, soloists, choruses and all the complexities of how you stage an opera” as well as experience “all its pitfalls and high drama on and off stage!”.

With the aid of Danielle de Niese and Dominic Seldis as well as Pappano, Kasper Holten and singers such as Lesley Garrett, Alfie Boe and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the series promises to give viewers an insight into “the passion, fun, fear, glamour and glory of the world of professional Opera”.

All in one hundred and eighty minutes.

Stop. Stop right now.

Don’t get me wrong. I will support anything that brings opera – in fact any classical music – to the wider audience. Yes of course it should be entertaining. But it also has to be intelligent. It has to celebrate the art form rather denigrate it. It should have value. And most importantly it shouldn’t patronize. Maestro At The Opera fails on all counts.

Have I seen it? I don’t need to. It is the principle that I object to.

It assumes that by lowering the standards and therefore the expectation of the audience it will achieve something. Clearly not ratings for the BBC as they have marginalized the series onto BBC Two rather like the marginalization of BBC Young Musician on BBC Four. Pace, the Young Musician Final is on BBC Two. But by the evening of the Final does it matter?

But back to Maestro At The Opera. Taking four people who – bar du Sautoy – have never expressed any interest in opera (or even classical music most likely) and hoping that they will ignite the smallest spark of interest in the audience is like asking a cat to sing.

At least when the sycophantic bumbler Alan Yentob ventured behind the scenes with his egotistical programme Imagine he didn’t attempt to glamorize the world of opera. He told the story as it was, even clearly exposing the vanities of the singer. Imagine might create a world that clearly revolves around the “sun that is Yentob” but at least it wasn’t artificial. You didn’t have to like the protagonists but you admired their talent and passion.

And while Tony Hall claims it is a “wonderful way of bringing opera to BBC audiences”, I would argue there is a better and a more reasonable way to spend the Licence Fee. Broadcast actual performances. Package around them, if you will, programmes that excite interest and if the BBC gets it right then people will watch. If it can be done for Shakespeare it can be done for opera.

Furthermore why not actually choose four up-and-coming real-life conductors and follow them? Even if it cannot be of their own careers or in the actual opera houses where they might be currently, but instead in an artificially-created environment on Bow Street, then so be it.

If the BBC can make programmes to find the UK’s best butcher, hairdresser and every other profession for BBC Three, why can’t it have the balls to consider doing something like this properly and with creative integrity?

There are budding maestri both here in the UK and around the world that have spent years training to be conductors. They have studied hard. Sought out every opportunity to gain more experience. And more often than not got paid very little.

To follow four individuals who have devoted their lives to opera and performance, to hear in their own words what they hope for, what they have sacrificed and what they are scared of would – in the hands of a talented television producer – be gripping drama. All the more because the viewer would be watching a true creative experience unfold rather than something that has been scripted.

I am even sure that the opera world could deliver the same ethnic-social mix of the current four contestants so that the BBC could tick that box too.

But no.

Instead we have what amounts to both a vanity project and tickbox-television from the BBC.

For Jan Younghusband it ticks the box that says the BBC must make “the arts” more popular. The BBC is often accused of “dumbing down” television. Often that claim is ridiculous.

But what Younghusband has done here is something much worse. She has prejudged.

For her any audience who might show an interest is already ‘dumb’ and therefore she has created a programme based on the lowest common denominator – celebrity-of-a-sort. Maestro At The Opera isn’t about the art form at all. It’s The Voice without the potential for discovering new talent. It’s about seeing how ridiculous four people can look because that is what Jan Younghusband believes the audience wants to see. In a way it’s almost cruelty-reality TV. Not only for the four protagonists but for the viewers at home as well.

And as for you Ms Hadlow – this new series won’t – however patronisingly you put it – take viewers “right to the heart of one of the world’s greatest opera institutions”. More likely than not those who deliberately tune in will have been to the opera already and won’t recognize the alternate and fictitious reality you have created. And those who accidentally surf across it – if they stay long enough – will wonder why three has-beens and someone they don’t recognize have been given airtime at all. The format of the show will only reinforce their view that opera is elitist and – in their opinion – boring.

But both Jan and Janice will no doubt ensure that Maestro At The Opera looks pretty. A saccharined veneer of pseudo operatic interest. It might even win them some awards for their trophy cabinets.

So why has the BBC done this?

It’s simple. It’s an act of appeasement. Cultural appeasement. In the same way that the BBC has marginalized the arts generally, Maestro At The Opera is the easy way out.

For the BBC the aim is clear – appease those who might have any decision in the future of the corporation and at the same time demonstrate to anyone who will listen how the masses are being kept happy by convincing them that it has been made ‘especially for them’. Don’t for a second dare to hope that by creating a more challenging concept based on real talent and musicianship, people might in fact watch and actually consider seeing an actual opera.

No. The BBC is too scared to consider that option. Cowards.

But the BBC has the Proms on television I hear them cry. They don’t – but could – broadcast every single concert on BBC Four and what they do broadcast cynically helps to pad out the figures published every year in their annual report. If you take out the Proms what else is there? Very little and what there is lacklustre and mediocre.

But I can’t blame the Royal Opera House. Granted they could have stood firm and insisted on actual conductors and real lives but let’s face it, who would turn down three hours of free advertising on the BBC?

Rather smart of Tony, Tony and Kasper if you think about it. Bravo.

Sky Arts anyone?

Further Reading:
More Circus Clown Than Ring Master – An Open Letter To Robert LePage

  1. “But no longer do they broadcast every single concert”.
    When did BBCTV ever broadcast every single Prom?
    That’s hardly an argument for dumbing down, when they didn’t actually do it in the first place!

    • Pace. I believed that one year they did. But I do think that they could televise them all and it would present a better use of the Licence Fee and more interesting scheduling for BBC Four. I have corrected my copy accordingly. Many thanks.

  2. […] have already written about the travesty that was Maestro At The Opera. And it was a crying shame that BBC Young Musician was so badly […]

  3. […] the subsequent programme on BBC Four (Not on BBC Two I might add and another example of the BBC marginalizing classical […]

  4. […] with bad ideas, the BBC’s Maestro At The Opera proved just how insulting the BBC thinks its audience is. This tick-box-arts-programming featuring […]

  5. […] bar the token appearance and attempts by the BBC to popularise classical music with such ideas as Maestro At The Opera aren’t so much misintentioned and misguided as simply […]

  6. […] like being treated as if they are idiots. Her approach to arts programming – as witnessed by Maestro at the Opera – is akin to restoring a painting with crayons – crass and […]

  7. […] Prom concert, Cardiff Singer or Young Musician there are the equally disturbing idiocies such as Maestro At The Opera. For every Shakespeare season there is a search for the UK’s best barber, baker or ballroom […]

  8. […] this before and it still rankles me. People like Katherine Jenkins, programmes like the BBC’s Maestro At The Opera are getting the lion’s share of a shrinking pool of money at the expense of real talent and […]

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