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We Get the Culture We Deserve?

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I am not entirely sure whether to be pleased or depressed that the latest Britain's Got Talent sensation, Jonathan and Charlotte, are becoming such a phenomenon. On the one hand, it partially proves the theory that there is an enormous untapped appetite for opera (or operatic-like noises) in the UK. On the other hand, it confirms that people still find it something of an exotic beast that they only encounter - and by which they find themselves impressed - on programmes like this.

Is that a bad thing? Well, yes to an extent and mainly because whatever real talent may turn up on those programmes, it will end up packaged, dumbed down and ultimately minced by the Simon Cowell money machine. What won't happen is that Jonathan, who does appear to have an instrument of sorts, will go to a conservatoire and see where he can take it, fully trained. That is a shame but then again, he will probably earn squillions anyway so why should he worry? Many people in the business will find lots to fault the duo on and yes, the techniques are questionable, the Italian atrocious and Charlotte, bless her, isn't really filled with enormous potential. But I think Jonathan has something about him, especially when you consider his age. With focus and training there could be something very interesting there.

In reality, though, this is not the point. What bothers me is that these episodes of transient stardom continue to keep opera and classical music - in the minds of the wider general public at least - in the box marked 'weird but wonderful' and rarely do the audience go beyond the ropey versions of 'Caruso' to explore the art form. It is often claimed by fans of acts like La Jenkins and the moaning mechanic Alfie Boe that they provide a gateway to the art form but I don't think they do actually. Boe had a real opportunity to do some good but chose instead the knicker-chucking world of musicals and decided to bite down hard on the hand that had fed him his opportunity. A real shame - but I digress. The same questionable claims apply to programmes like Maestro at the Opera, even though some credible and important people from opera are involved in that series (big-up to our mate Steve Higgins among others). Trevor the DJ said he was now a convert to opera having learned O Mio Babbino Caro* but did he and the audience really have to go through all of that to realise that there is something in opera he could enjoy? His is indeed an interesting example of what is possible (hmm, am I arguing with myself here?) because as an "urban" DJ he had never supposed there was something in opera that might appeal to him. Through his entire adult musical life, it had passed him by and then bam! on the strength of listening to one aria he underwent his Damascene conversion. Opera companies need to keep trying to make connections but the temptation is to take the easy route; Hip Hop Cosi or celebrity participation... need I say more? We sometimes appear afraid of our own artform.

From a televisual point of view there is something compelling about watching the participants of Maestro go through the nerve-shredding experience of standing in front of an orchestra. Anybody who has done so (and we give people the chance at the OHP Open Day in our 'Minute Maestro' activity) will know what an unreconstructed monster a full orchestra can be so you have to admire them for their grit. And despite everything, I always marvel at the guts of amateurs on BGT who do what they do in front of millions (and for Jonathan we should reserve some special praise because he is clearly a deeply shy and self-conscious young man). Performing is never an easy thing to do at any level.

Perhaps I am being too idealistic and these programmes are better than nothing, but the overwhelming feeling I am left with is that we are almost there, on the verge of real breakthroughs, but TV Land is just too afraid to get serious with it, choosing instead to introduce a celebrity angle in a dot-to-dot representation of the world of classical music; the premise being that you might not be interested in this but you will be when we show you how difficult it is to sing/conduct/act etc. And better still, we will get someone really unexpected to do it and possibly make a real tit of themselves. I suppose many mean well but then again, maybe they are right because despite the cheers, irritating standing ovations during the performance and the millions of YouTube hits, the British public eventually voted for the dog who can walk on its hind legs. Ultimately, we get the culture we deserve, right?

*To be heard in our production of Gianni Schicchi this summer!

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