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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

Review – The Beauty of Baroque. Danielle de Niese, The English Concert/Harry Bickett

In Baroque, Classical Music, Danielle de Niese, Handel, JS Bach, Opera, Review on June 24, 2011 at 1:56 pm

A lesson learned – never listen to a new CD when in a bad mood. If I hadn’t revisited this album once again I would have missed what is, overall, a delightful, if not compelling, recital disc.

Danielle de Niese first came to public notice for her memorable performance as Cleopatra in McVicar’s Glyndebourne production of Giulio Cesare. Since then she has played other roles, notably Poppea as well as released a disc of Mozart arias. This new album focuses, as the title makes clear, on a mixed bag of music from the baroque era – namely Monteverdi, Purcell, Pergolesi, Bach and naturally, Handel. And in some of the numbers she is accompanied by the countertenor Andreas Scholl.

The disc opens with Purcell’s Come again: Sweet love doth now invite and What if I never speed? both of which de Niese delivers with charm, delicacy and attention to the texts. However from the start de Niese displays a noticeable breathiness, and while this may, in part, be due to too close a recording set up, personally I also believe it’s also to do with her technique which during the recital affects her ability to produce a smooth, legato line as required.

Next come two old Handel stalwarts, Ombrai mai fu from Serse. and Let The Bright Seraphim from Samson. While de Niese does justice to the first aria, singing it with great simplicity and musical intelligence, she fails to deliver, as I mentioned above, the requisite fluid, legato line, but instead chops the vocal line and – in some cases – seeming to snatch her breaths. It might not be a definitive performance but her rich, golden tone is hard to resist. In the second aria, with it’s accomplished trumpet obbligato, de Niese’s bright and agile soprano comes into it’s own. And thankfully she doesn’t succumb to the common practice of superfluous ornamentation on the return of the first section.

They hand Belinda … When I am laid from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is a deceptively difficult aria. It requires an ability to spin a smooth, almost unbroken line and surprisingly de Niese delivers it to produce what I think is almost the strongest performance on the disc. Her diction is crystal clear and her delivery of the phrase ‘Remember me’ is particularly poignant, emphasised as it is by subtle use of vibrato.

From Acis and Galatea comes Heart, the seat of soft delight. With its gentle recorder accompaniment, De Niese achieves the requisite sense of pastoral rapture. Indeed it immediately recalled her wonderful performance as Acis at Covent Garden when it was then second part of a double bill after Sarah Connolly in Dido and Aeneas. If you get the chance snap up a copy of the DVD.

Monteverdi is represented by the wonderful duet Pur ti miro from L’incoronazione di Poppea and Quel sguardo sdegnosetto. Joined by Andreas Scholl in the duet from the closing act, this is the crowning highlight of the recital disc. Their two voices entwine and blend perfectly above the delicate accompaniment in this rapturously erotic music. The second Monteverdi number with it’s fleeting lute work doesn’t work so well, de Niese failing to match the dance-inspired infectiousness of the her accompanist.

Scholl returns for Io t’abbraccio from Handel’s Rodelinda. It’s clear that he provides a clear focus of inspiration and support for de Niese as this duet rivals the previous for the top slot. However it fails to ignite in the same way but is still well sung.

Guardian Angels, Oh, Protect Me from The Triumph of Time and Truth is the last Handel aria on the disc. The rather turgid, plodding accompaniment from Bickett doesn’t help de Niese as she tries to convey what is one of Handel’s finest arias. Again the breathiness returns here and interestingly in this aria alone does she seem to have almost imperceptible problems with intonation.

The first movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater follows and again de Niese and Scholl entwine their voices to beautiful effect although the performance lacks any sense of light and shade – sung practically at one volume throughout.

It’s a shame that de Niese’s disc ends with JS Bach, as personally these two arias are the least convincing on the disc. I am not sure that her voice suits his music at all. Sich üben im Lieben from the wedding cantata Weichtet nur, betrübte Schatten is marred by the obbligato oboists intonation problems and generally feels laboured rather than loved. Schafe können sicker weiden fares slightly better although she is challenged by the sustained vocal line and therefore remains unconvincing in this specific repertoire.

Ultimately however De Niese’s breath control – which I believe can only be blamed in part on the close recording – somewhat marrs what is a good, if not compelling, recital disc. Throughout de Niese is ably, if somewhat unimaginatively supported by The English Concert conducted by Harry Bickett.

However it is worth it for de Niese’s and Scholl’s magical performance of Pur ti miro alone.

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