Posts Tagged ‘BBC’

Lies. Damn Lies. And Classical Marketing.

In BBC, Classical Music on February 6, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Recently two comments about classical music caught my eye in the media.

The first came out of the mouth of Katherine Jenkins as she announced yet another banal and pseudo-classical album. During her press conference at the Ritz no less, she said that “there will always be the core classical critics who want to keep it (classical music/opera) as an elitist thing but I’ve always believed that it should be there for everybody and I want to make it as accessible as possible …”.

The second was during a press conference to announce the Chicago Symphony Orchestra new season. Riccardo Muti said classical music marketing – “Today all you see are violinists’ legs and a conductor with hair like a forest. The future seems to be legs and hair.”

It’s clear that Ms Jenkins was prompted by the label’s canny PR people that to say something contentious would ensure more column inches than the threat of a tenth mediocre album. Words like ‘elitist’ and ‘accessible’ are buzzwords the media love and it does Decca Classical no favours at all to perpetuate this myth.

Maestro Muti’s comment however speaks of an underlying frustration he feels personally. Not only about the trend of marketeers in terms of classical music but also the future of classical music vis-à-vis talent.

I have written about 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 professional musicians. Their activities aren’t perpetuating classical music but rather undermining it and in the long term damaging its future health.

I don’t disagree that classical music should be accessible and not elitist. But it can be done without dumbing down the experience. I contend that what Katherine Jenkins does isn’t about making classical music ‘accessible’ but rather patronising her audience with watered-down performances that deny her listeners the real experience of hearing classical music as it was written to be performed. In a sense, Ms Jenkins and her ilk are perpetuating that ‘elitism’ by implying that their audiences cannot appreciate or love the real thing.

Shame on her but understandable that she should choose the easiest path – one that hasn’t taken years of study, training and dedication coupled with the occasional disappointment.

Because it’s talent that is the most important thing. Not the artwork. Not the photographer who shot it. Not the strap line. And definitely not performing ‘arrangements’ that do no justice to the composer’s original intentions.

I believe that classical music should be a challenge. That’s not elitist and that’s not saying that it should be inaccessible. When people listen to classical music that experience should be as honest as possible.

Because it’s that transaction of honesty and the resultant emotional reaction that gets people hooked. And not only to classical music. But all genres. Yes, even pop and dance. I admit that there are still a few dance tracks that I heard in my youth in clubs that still set my heart racing because of the emotional response and memory they evoke.

There are numerous examples of organisations doing everything they can with every shrinking budgets to reach new audiences. From work with schools and in the community to live cinema broadcasts to reinterpreting the format of classical concerts themselves and even the venues where they take place, some great work is being done to keep classical music alive and kicking.

Sadly the search for an easy route to a quick buck also means that the marketeers are increasingly seeing classical music and those who perform it simply as a commodity adopting an approach that’s more suitable for – to be frank – perfume ads. You know the adverts – glamorous models, often half naked or disrobing as they walk through palatial splendour saying absolutely nothing about the fragrance itself but rather the lifestyle it implies can be achieved.

It might work for perfume ads. It might work for car ads. But it doesn’t work for classical music. More often than not undermines the talent and effort that has gone into creating that recording, that production or that recital.

I’m not asking for a return to moody landscapes and the like and I don’t mind portraits of artists on albums and posters. But surely it be done with a little more honesty and integrity and less of the ‘nudge-nudge-wink-wink’ factor?

Of course the power and arsenal of tricks of advertising should be harnessed for classical music. But intelligently harnessed and deployed. Personally ENO’s condom ad for Don Giovanni didn’t work for me but you can’t deny the impact of their artwork for Le Danse Macabre or Peter Grimes. Similarly recitals can feature portraits of artists without them having to bare a leg or – in some cases – that little bit more. The recent campaign for Yuja Wang by the Barbican waxes lyrical about her “fearless individuality”, “fitting no stereotype” and “speaking with her own voice” so that it seems that her talent doesn’t seem as important as the glamour and “edginess” of her personality.

I fear that labels and their marketing departments are seeing classical music simply as a units to be shifted and a bottom line to be achieved. Of course there has to be a commercial side to classical music but should it be the only impetus?

Why does profit have to be the driving denominator?

That approach does a huge disservice to this creative and artistic community that makes such a massive contribution to the UK’s cultural scene.


A Slice of the Public Pie.

In BBC on February 3, 2014 at 10:27 am

Michael White’s article in the Telegraph on Friday was a well-argued view about the decline of the quality and lack of direction at BBC Radio 3. Personally I always thought it was a shame that Radio 4 got the extra digital channel. A second Radio 3 channel featuring archive broadcasts would have been superb – and possible, reading as I have today of the demise of ‘Archers Lite’ – a more successful station audience-wise – not only pleasing Whitehall listeners but potentially being a way to find those elusive new audiences.

But what White’s article also reminds us is that discussions about the future of the BBC and the review and renewal of its Charter, have started. I am hoping that this will be a longer process than the ‘signed-on-the-back-of-a-fag-packet’ deal that Miller’s predecessor signed with the BBC over the level of the Licence Fee.

It needs to be fought over. Line by line. Not to destroy or undermine the BBC but more to ensure that the BBC remains relevant in the future.

Annually the BBC receives over £3.0bn directly from the public. I’m not here to argue whether it’s an unfair tax or not. Personally I think the Licence Fee is necessary, vital in fact, to ensure that the UK’s cultural landscape continues to enrich our lives. And I mean ‘cultural’ in the broadest sense. Alongside the BBC’s role in television, radio, online and the development and distribution of new technologies I also include the impact it has right across the cultural spectrum.

But while most of their activities are positive, there is no denying that the BBC has not always leveraged it’s Licence Fee wisely or fairly.

For every wildlife documentary featuring David Attenborough, there is something as crass as The Voice. For every 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 dancer to ‘snog, marry or avoid’.

Sadly the return of Tony Hall to the BBC as Director-General has seen a slide back to the imperialist approach of the Corporation he left behind in 2000. Surrounding himself with acolytes like Purnell and Bulford from that yesteryear period, the BBC has become more adamant than ever that it should not shrink further but rather – and more worryingly – expand.

Surely there must come a time when the BBC must recognise that it must reduce the scope of its services in some way? It doesn’t need to axe BBC Three for example but considering the amount it invests in developing new technology couldn’t that channel feasibly become a mobile or online channel only? That way not only could it guarantee that it served new audiences and reduce that channel’s overheads considerably but also lead the way for other companies to follow? Whenever the BBC invests in platforms or technology and takes the risks, other companies are more willing to follow.

And the BBC isn’t above a little ‘aggressive’ competitiveness. There’s ample evidence of that in their chase of ratings and I don’t buy that high ratings are evidence of quality. The BBC invented it’s so called Audience Appreciation index which clearly demonstrates that what the audience perceives as ‘quality’ or ‘distinctive’ doesn’t have to equate to high rating. I also believe that the BBC has played a role – however small – in the demise of local media and journalism.

Three billion pounds is more than a great deal of money. What’s more it is public money, so it comes as no surprise that the concept of ‘top-slicing’ – or sharing a portion of the Licence Fee – resurfaces whenever the future of the BBC is debated.

Fortunately for the bean counters and the policy wonks based at the BBC’s new billion pound fortress, there has never been a cogent or well-argued reason for top-slicing. In the past it’s only been other broadcasters who have argued for it, often against the backdrop of falling commercial revenues.

But perhaps it is because the argument is not bold enough? Perhaps that slice skimmed off the top of the BBC’s coffers should be made available for everyone to share?

Michael White refers to Classic FM’s bid for a cut, arguing that BBC Radio 3 isn’t ‘distinctive’ enough. How the BBC must hate it when their own buzzwords are used against them.

So what if an amount – a figure extrapolated from the total amount of the Licence Fee collected and factoring in the billions the BBC aims to save in the long term – was ring-fenced for the Creative Industries as a whole. Of course I mean orchestras, opera companies etc but also theatres and other performing groups and even the digital and technology companies that are now part of the fraternity.

Of course there would have to be incredibly strict criteria – as well as checks and balances – in place to ensure that this money was awarded correctly. And even stricter conditions would also need to be set in terms of how that money is spent and impact measured.

Perhaps one condition could be that the money received has to be spent within the organisation’s local community, in a sense paying it back into the lives of Licence Fee payers. Larger organisations could potentially guarantee to match-fund any money through their own fundraising efforts. Or the BBC could make good on its often talked about promise of greater collaboration and make long-term investments in permanent exhibitions, co-productions and the like rather than short-term investments that benefit the Corporation more than their partners. I think the shine of the history of the world in one hundred objects has dulled considerably and nothing new seems to be on the horizon.

It’s not unfeasible that the BBC could get a small return on investment in some way. Not a financial return necessarily but perhaps sharing any audience data or insights from funded projects for example.

But is there another reason to seriously consider top-slicing?

Over and above any industry-led argument is there also a moral argument for the BBC to share its largesse?

I’m not suggesting this in reference to the tidal wave of badly handled calamities that have engulfed the BBC in the last few years, the backwash of which is still swamping the organisation. In the face of accusations of corporate malfeasance, weak management, even weaker succession management in the guise of Tony Hall and a continued lack of strategic direction aside, is it right that one single organisation should be in receipt of this entire levy?

And that’s before you factor in the dominant role of BBC Worldwide in to the equation, and the millions of pounds it returns the the Corporation every year. And with Tony Hall looking to expand – not shrink – the BBC’s international business that revenue stream looks set to grow.

And other BBC departments take public money from elsewhere. For example, the BBC Philharmonic receives from Salford Council. I love the BBC Phil and laud their projects such as the current collaboration with the Hallé and their funky Presents series, but what is the money from Salford spent on exactly?

I’m even sure that the hundreds in the BBC marketing department could make it look like the BBC was acting like some ‘public service philanthropist’ throwing proverbial pennies from behind a silk screen.

A while back Maria Miller insisted that the Creative Industries make a greater revenue contribution. Perhaps the creative opportunities of top-slicing could help.

Cardiff & the BBC’s continued cultural deficit

In BBC, Classical Music, Review on June 19, 2013 at 10:44 am

Cardiff Singer of the World should be one of the highlights of the BBC’s calendar in terms of the arts. For a whole week all attention is focused on the city as a panel of judges listen to performance after performance to find singers that will go on to fulfil their dreams of a career as an professional singer.

I am envious of those who can make it to Cardiff even once this week and sit in St David’s Hall. Unlike them, the majority of us must rely on the BBC.

So am I the only one who feels cheated by the BBC?

First and foremost Cardiff Singer of the World is relegated in its entirety to BBC Four and Radio 3. Like the Proms it has been exiled to that distant cultural television outpost by the BBC’s top brass.

No wonder Richard Klein has jumped ship.

Instead the mainstream audience are offered a thirty-minute programme on BBC Two every night. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it is hosted by two complete and total incompetents – Connie Fisher and Tim Rhys Evans. Based on the first half hour it seems that their joint knowledge of singing is totally dependent on whatever some researcher has written on the autocue.

Their only qualification seems to be that they are Welsh. On that premise we should expect that the BBC’s history programmes be presented only by those actually related to the subjects of the documentaries; nature programmes by Doctor Doolittle and news by real journalists and not news ‘readers’.

The nadir of the first programme was when Connie Fisher – at a loss for words in the face of the real talent of Katherine Broderick – had to resort to speaking about her dress. I don’t deny that most of us may mention on occasion a singer’s outfit but it was clear that Ms Fisher’s knowledge didn’t extend any further as the matter was compounded when the autocue clearly failed and she made a hash of filling the void by referring to Rhys Evans’ knighthood.

She couldn’t even get the honour correct.

And their guests were a similar reflection of the total lack of regard that the BBC has for arts programming. Alongside the very excellent Rosemary Joshua, who seemed completely nonplussed by the stupidity around her, the BBC wheeled out that vocal insurance salesman Wynne Evans. To hear him speak with his faux authority on the quality of the singers was ‘comparable’ to the presenters’ own ignorance and lack of insight.

Could the BBC not find one person – in Wales let alone the entire UK – who could speak and host even half an hour on BBC Two with real authority? Why not Petroc Trelawney who is hosting the BBC Four show? Why not another Radio 3 presenter?

Clearly Ms Hadlow, the hapless and hopeless controller of BBC Two still thinks that her audience 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 offensive.

From what I hear ‘Call Me Tony’ Hall is making arts a priority. This is either a knee-jerk reaction to recent criticisms from the likes of Brian Sewell or a realisation that without some limp gesture in this area, its charter renewal will be bloody.

But what I fear is that this ‘commitment’ is pure spin. The BBC is currently working on the premise of telling people what they think they want to hear and covering everything they do with a thin veneer of make-believe. They are operating on the belief that saying something – anything – once is enough. Delivering doesn’t matter.

I am sure Tony Hall will be at the final at the end of the week. I am sure that the cameras will pan to him sitting in the audience more than once. I am sure that will be spun into his ‘personal’ commitment to the arts.

But being seen to do something simply isn’t enough. The BBC seems quite content to wantonly fritter millions of pounds on cheap and failing entertainment shows, digital ideas that don’t deliver and ‘hush money’ but seem incapable of treating their audience with even a modicum of respect.

Perhaps Cardiff Singer Of The World should shop around for a more committed broadcaster for its next competition in 2015?

Like the rest of us, it surely can’t just hope things will get better at Auntie.

What Tony Hall Could Do Next

In BBC, Classical Music, Opera on March 27, 2013 at 4:50 pm

The BBC welcomes a new leader after Easter. Sooner than expected if the average term for a Director-General should be counted more normally in years rather than days, and foisted on the Corporation without interview or due process by that great panjandrum Lord Patten.

And what Lord Tony Hall of Birkenhead inherits is an organisation that often seems outdated, out of touch and out of its depth.

Like a gambler with a faulty or marked deck of cards, ‘Call Me Tony’ has already shuffled his management team. He’s shifted some errant executives around, followed Patten’s cue and appointed at will and symbolically renamed divisions as if the digital age had never happened.

Over the next few days, weeks and no doubt months the media will write about Hall’s intray, his first one hundred days – and let’s hope he surpasses that target unlike his predecessor ‘Incurious George’ – and dissect every word and action he undertakes.

His is an unenviable task. He is being heralded by the BBC’s inadequate spin doctors to anyone who will listen as the ‘great bright hope’, a man who will pull the BBC out of its creative mire and tackle the management malaise.

And if rumours are true Hall hopes to put right many wrongs with a war chest of £100 million which he is having skimmed off divisions like a layer of cream in advance of his arrival.

But money can only go so far. For years the BBC has singly failed to come up with a creative strategy and stuck to it. Granted, trying to come up with a single aim and purpose for an organisation that is splitting at the seams with television and radio channels, a morass of mindless entertainment fodder and a website with a voracious appetite is always going to be a problem.

But perhaps it should simply look to define itself by the original principles established by Lord Reith?

Inform. Educate. Entertain.

So on that basis then the BBC’s commitment to arts and culture should be at the centre and benefit from Hall’s chest of gold? Surely?

Currently the BBC’s commitment to culture is haphazard. History, art and literature seem to do pretty well but classical music seems to have hit an all time low in terms of love.

I think Christmas was the last time opera made it to one of the main channels, the Proms have been relegated 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 offensive.

Even the recent and most excellent Written On Skin – possibly one of the most exciting and significant new operas for many years – has been recorded for transmission on BBC 4 at a later date. Why it wasn’t broadcast live escapes me.

So, given a blank cheque what could Tony Hall do?

What I am about to suggest isn’t a strategy or a manifesto but simply a few ideas. But none of them, I believe, are too far-fetched to achieve.

Naturally anything he does has to be seen as impartial – a great BBC word when it suits them – and therefore can’t be seen to favour his old friends on Bow Street. But nonetheless here is an opportunity for Hall to cure the dry rot at the heart of the BBC’s commitment to the arts.

And let’s be clear, this commitment isn’t about ratings. It’s about saying that quality – another BBC buzzword – isn’t only about the millions that watch, or about an increase in that other BBC marketing tool its appreciation score, but about standing by a set of principles set down decades ago.

Inform. Educate. Entertain.

First. A simple reversal. If rumours I have heard are true, this year the Proms will not feature at all on either BBC 1 or BBC 2 but be tucked away on BBC 4. I hope my friends in the BBC have got that wrong. I mean no disrespect to Richard Klein. I’ve met him plenty of times. I’ve enjoyed talking with him and hearing both his views and ideas as well as his frustrations, and admired his passion in the face of ever more harrowing adversity and cuts to his budget. But putting everything on his channel doesn’t make it a destination but rather an apology.

So first of all, put the Proms back on the main channels. Again I hear that there are some stupendous proms planned – not least Barenboim and the Berliners performing the Ring cycle – therefore the Proms needs to be actively celebrated for everyone to watch as well as listen.

The BBC might be surprised by the results. Music is one of the oldest forms of entertainment. If done correctly, classical music on television can be just as gripping and entertaining – yes entertaining – as a night at Glastonbury and far more dramatic than that manufactured and mind-numbing pap The Voice which cost the BBC £22 million.

Secondly take a more active role in live broadcast. I hugely admired Bayerische Oper’s live broadcast of Kriegenberg’s Götterdämmerung last year. While that was commercially sponsored, it’s a crying shame that the BBC has retreated from taking any part in the screens that are set up in major cities. I can’t believe the outlay was that much compared to a single episode of Strictly Come Dancing but wouldn’t it be marvellous to revisit that decision and again perhaps use them for the Proms – and not just the Last Night – but also strike deals with other arts organisations and help share the financial burden in some way?

And with the Proms adequately provided for perhaps the BBC could make a bold decision regarding opera? I believe the TV term for them is output deals so could the BBC sign an output deal – possibly the first of its kind ever – with all the major UK opera companies – ROH, ENO, ETO, WNO, Scottish Opera, Glyndebourne etc – and commit to broadcast one or even two of their operas in every season? It’s a bold idea and would take some planning but why not? As well as signalling a very concrete commitment to classical music on a par with the Proms, I am sure the companies in question wouldn’t balk at this new revenue stream. And it needn’t conflict with their existing commercial deals with cinemas as there are plenty of operas to go around. Additionally I’m pretty sure Parliament would like it too and in a concession to those poor schedulers they could be broadcast on BBC 2 and we could have some respite from more ‘bake offs’.

And what about The Space? It’s a smart idea and is being brilliantly championed by the likes of Susannah Simons – the only BBC executive it seems that has a real passion for classical music – but it needs more and longer-term investment. Originally a hurried afterthought for the London Olympics when the BBC realised it’s own cultural contribution was almost zero, The Space could and should play a greater role in supporting the arts – big and small – across the UK. And at the same time be a way to get to young people, that ever elusive audience.

Perhaps a deal with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and their excellent Night Shift and The Works series?

And finally how about prime time programmes that don’t patronise and aren’t presented by idiots? Get rid of ideas such as Maestro At The Opera and follow real musicians – players, singers, conductors – as they try and make a real career based on talent and passion. I like Simon Russell Beale on stage but I don’t want to be subjected to him – or others – pontificating about classical music. If the BBC can secure the ever wonderful Mary Beard then why can’t it make programmes about classical music presented by experts in the field? People who actually know what they are talking about without resorting to a script potentially not even written by someone with specialist knowledge themselves?

I admit this is – as I have said – my wish list. I’d like to come home and switch on my TV and have the opportunity to watch something that isn’t either a half-starved idea created as tick-box television or tucked away in the television equivalent of a gulag for the culturally inclined.

It will be interesting to see what Tony Hall does upon arrival at Broadcasting House.

I’m hoping that his ten or so years outside the BBC – and at Covent Garden – have removed any old loyalties that might lie dormant in his grey suited breast.

I’m hoping he has some bold ideas about the BBC’s future creative purpose and direction.

And most of all I’m hoping he will put the arts – and in particular oft-neglected classical music – back at the heart of what the BBC does.

Inform. Educate. Entertain.

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.

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


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