Katherine Jenkins? Just Say No.

In Classical Music, Opera on July 12, 2012 at 9:16 am

A number of things over the past few months have made my heart sink about the long-term commitment to and future of classical music in the UK.

Don’t get me wrong we have – despite cut after cut – a rich and varied performance culture. But it isn’t enough.

For example take Philip Henscher’s article in The Independent. The fact that classical music is studiously avoided or used for ‘riot control’ is the result of numerous factors. You cannot ignore – and I have witnessed first-hand myself – the fact that there is a serious lack of commitment within the education system with only a few and daring exceptions to the general rule. This is either because of a failure to integrate the subject within the syllabus effectively or with any sense of original thinking or because of resources. There’s also an added and unfortunate perceived social bias quite possibly because people perceive that it can only be nurtured in schools with the resources.

The net result is that the majority of people who enjoy classical music and attend classical concerts, operas and recitals are more aware than ever of the steady decline in both the appreciation of and audiences for the genre.

To counter this performing groups are trying anything and everything to draw in a new audience and increase their revenue. These are tough times and I applaud almost any attempt by arts organisations to make themselves more attractive to a younger demographic using modern marketing techniques despite some derisory and elitist comments from old school puritans. And I would like to think that ventures such as the late-night taster concerts at the Southbank by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the smart advertising of Covent Garden and the activity of smaller organisations who are doing similar things on a shoestring budget are attracting new audiences. But whether in enough volume is questionable.

I also don’t wholly agree with Rupert Christiansen that cinema broadcasts will have a detrimental effect opera companies. Perhaps opera houses need to be more commercially savvy? The Met has had significant success commercialising its assets and Covent Garden needs to follow suit especially having invested in some pretty sophisticated studio equipment. And John Berry at ENO should ensure he isn’t left behind by dismissing the power of cinema and new technology and media completely. His recent comments sounded bitter rather than visionary. Perhaps that’s why he never got a second interview for the BBC job.

But even this level of activity cannot be and is not enough. And especially not in classical music. Galleries and museums are – in a sense – more fortunate in that they can and do command the attention of substantial corporate funding perhaps because greater footfall is seen as providing greater potential awareness per pound of investment by sponsors as well as the less elitist perception that these venues have. I don’t deny that some corporates support individual performing groups or organisations but not – I would imagine – on a scale that the British Museum, The National Gallery or the Victoria & Albert receive support.

So where does this leave us?

Well in my opinion it leaves us with the major record labels. And the BBC.

A few years ago an article in The Economist piqued my interest. A major record label announced that it would no longer be recording full-length operas any more as it wasn’t commercially viable. It seemed a sad state of affairs that this same label was willing to waste money and pour it down the throats and up the noses of countless less-than-talented pop groups with little or no return either on their music or the global marketing campaigns that launched their ill-fated careers. And a few years ago the same publication published some research that demonstrated that opera was good for growth. This was based on research conducted by Oliver Falck, Michael Fritsch and Stephan Heblich and they argued that for whatever reason the original opera houses were built, and regardless of the immediate socio-economic impact, the self same opera houses were still making an important contribution to the regional economy.

I realise that major record labels, faced with diminishing returns because of the advent of downloads and piracy as well as not an unfair amount of corporate greed, are governed by their bottom-line. But they are taking the fool’s way out.

They promote “easy listening” classical. Aural fodder. They package a man, a woman or a group in expensive clothes, drape them seductively on an album cover or a poster and sometimes give them suggestive names.

But forget one thing. Talent.

These people are talentless. Take away the microphone and the veneer and you have a bunch of people who are less than lacklustre.

Look at Katherine Jenkins. Look at Russell Watson. Look at Alfie Boe. Look at Opera Babes (Yes. ‘Babes’). Look at Amore. Millions of pounds spent marketing the bland and the untalented. But more sadly millions spent producing unchallenging, uninspiring music in the belief that the audience want mediocrity.

The truth is some of us don’t. We can spot the talented. And the talentless.

I don’t overtly object to the commercialisation of classical music within reason. For the most part the CD covers of the likes of Renée Fleming, Danielle de Niese and even Gergiev recognise the power of marketing but never negate the talent that lies within. Packaging is important and it has much more impact if, when someone listens, they actually hear real, natural talent.

But as companies are increasingly waking up to their social responsibilities, shouldn’t major record labels wake up to their cultural responsibilities?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the labels said to Katherine or Russell; to “Babes” Karen and Rebecca; to David, Monica, Peter or Victoria – “I’m sorry. The truth is you aren’t very good and we’re done screwing the public.” And instead invested the money in real artists with real talent?

If only.

Major labels must significantly invest in real talent. It should be less about the sex or an ‘X’ factor. The only factor that should matter – their ability.

In a few years time, Katherine Jenkins will be forgotten. In the harsh reality of today’s marketing and celebrity-obsessed society she will be too old to be of any use. She won’t look good on an album cover and because she – or anyone like her – hasn’t any talent, her profitability will fade as quickly as her looks.

All that money wasted.

But there are isolated instances that prove that there are some people in the ‘music business’ who are fighting a rearguard action.

John Elliott Gardiner defied expectations after Archiv pulled their support. He boldly embarked on the project on his own, launching his own label and has all but completed his spectacular Bach cantata cycle.

And other small labels are similarly setting the standard in terms of both vision and commitment. Marek Janowski is recording Wagner’s major operas on PentaTone to coincide with the composer’s centenary. This is an incredible feat that – as far as I am aware – is not being matched by any other label.

If truth be told, labels seem to be happy to hide to certain extent behind reissuing older – or as they refer to them – ‘classic’ recordings. That is not to say that these are not valuable. They are. But today’s classical music industry and audience cannot survive on reissues alone. Otherwise we run the risk of only ever harking back to yesteryear.

But while labels can hide behind – or below – their bottom line, what about the BBC?

I 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 treated.

And of course there are the Proms. But even those are marginalised.

The BBC has a responsibility – and duty set by Parliament – to promote arts and culture. It doesn’t do too badly in terms of ancient history, literature or art. But in terms of classical music it is virtually non-existent and never consistent. It’s bite-sized and relegated to niche.

I read with interest an excellent blog at George’s Musings that included a response from the head of BBC Four as to why there wasn’t more opera on BBC Four. It was about the money. I am not asking for the classical equivalent of that arch example of vocal mediocrity The Voice that the BBC One audience rejected in spades are so much hype. I am not that naïve but couldn’t the BBC actually take a bold step and lead by example? And if they can spend £20 million for two years of The Voice then surely they can scrape a few more coins together for something of such much more value in the long-term?

I applaud the fact that they didn’t savage their own orchestras but isn’t the BBC meant to address market failure? With a new Director-General perhaps there might be a reappraisal of the BBC’s cultural responsibilities. But from what I gather it’s becoming more and more apparent that the new man at the top could prove to be nothing more than a bland cipher and puppet for Patten – more Simple George than Curious George. And definitely not Cultural George.

Sky Arts 1 AND 2 aren’t the solution but – André Rieu aside – they are doing a pretty good job. I just hope that now Murdoch is abandoning the UK he doesn’t throw it all to the dogs.

I am sure the BBC would argue that it “does enough”. They probably have a policy wonk in a room somewhere in their new shiny building at Regent Street that cost £1 billion who manipulates the figures to show an increase in some way or other.

But doing enough or – as what the case with Maestro At The Opera – missing the point completely, descending to the lowest common denominator and treating your audience like idiots is unacceptable.

The entire public deserves better.

Arts programming shouldn’t be a sop as the BBC once again does another deal on the back of a cigarette packet to secure the Charter. And considering the cultural vandalism of the current Government they should not be so sure that pulling a cultural ace out of the deck will have the desired effect.

They should be bold, step forward and demonstrate that they will not fulfil the minimum duty but exceed expectation.

Not a strand. Not a season. But wholesale investment in arts programming. Yes classical music. Yes opera. But also yes to programming in the broadest sense that addresses the current threat of a real cultural deficit. A long-term vision and commitment that will serve today’s audience and the licence fee paying audience of the future.

Because if the BBC addresses its own cultural deficit and lack of vision it can only lead others to follow their example.

  1. I completely agree! It is so unfortunate that many talented singers have to compete with what producers feel as “marketable.” That’s just dumb-ing down audiences. Give humans more credit than that!

  2. Please don’t include Alfie Boe in amongst your “talentless” list. Take away his microphone andyou still have an exceptionally talented opera singer. OK Maybehe’s singing more main stream at the moment, but it doesn’talter the fact that he is hugely talented. Instead of listing him amongst the others, why not encourage him to use his God given talent classically?

  3. […] have written about this before and it still rankles me. People like Katherine Jenkins, programmes like the BBC’s Maestro At The […]

  4. […] are starting to follow, determined not to be diminished by the selfishness of labels and there obsession with mediocrity and the bottom […]

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