Sunday, January 17, 2010

PopStar to Opera Star

You know as soon as you see Alan Titchmarsh that you're not in for anything nasty. The housewives' favourite isn't going to preside over the sort of laughing at the mentally ill and desperate that Simon Cowell fronts in the early episodes of the X-Factor, is he? And so it proves in ITV's latest attempt to get some decent viewing figures by cobbling together spare parts from other TV shows like a cathode ray Frankenstein. You have to admire Mylene Kalss's professionalism, too. She stands next to Alan as he does his bumblingly affable schtick, and then delivers her lines with a steely determination. There's barely a hint of the pounding fear that must underlie every waking moment when you've rescued your career by wearing a bikini in the jungle and are absolutely, fiercely resolute that you are going to hang on to the spotlight this time, oh yes.

The judges on PopStar to Opera Star are a bizarre combination. One wonders what drugs the production staff were on when they chose them. I assumed before I switched on that Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen must have been chosen because he's a bit frilly and poncey - y'know, like classical music? - but it turns out he's on because he's a DJ on Classic FM these days, presumably because he's a bit frilly and poncey - y'know, like classical music? Meat Loaf, of course, is famous for his operatic records. Operatic in the sense of wildly ridiculous and over the top, that is. Which is the point at which you begin to realise exactly how opera fits into the scheme here.

The other two judges are also the coaches for the celebs, which is disappointing, because it means no-one's ever going to be anything other than nice to the contestants. This is surely going to be a strain when they get to Alex James, who is surely the undisputed king of Being Shit At Classical Music On Telly. They are Kathryn Jenkins and Animal from the Muppets. Ironically, Animal is the only person here who's actually been in an opera. That's not half as ironic as the presence of Katherine Jenkins, though - a woman famous for singing everything the same on a programme whose whole point is supposed to be about singing things differently to normal. There must be a personality buried somewhere beneath the blonde hair, makeup and cleavage - maybe she's really filthy in bed? - but if there is it's never allowed to break through the relentlessly bland facade.

The format follows the pattern we all know from Strictly X-Maestro Academy. Each celeb in turn is shown "in training", then emerges onto the set to bawl out a popular aria, every warble the subject of frenzied cheering form the (allegedly) live audience. There's no insight into how "operatic" singing differs from "pop" singing, or of why the celebs should want to do it (other than being paid to appear in an 8-week TV series, which is steady work for a couple of months, isn't it?). "I only know my song from the Stella ad!" exclaims Kym Marsh, to the hilarity of some canned laughter. Of course, most people only know that song from the Stella ad, but we'll let that pass, eh?

Animal and the Jenkster are never gong to be nasty to their pupils on live telly, not even Alex James, but you'd hope one of the other two might offer a more jaded counterbalance to their gushing. But no. Meat Loaf appears to be channelling John Barrowman, while Lawrence Fop, appears at first as though he might do a Craig Revel-Horwood, but as soon as he opens his mouth it becomes clear nothing's going to upset the applecart. You'd hope that at least a mild frisson would develop when Kym and Mylene have to share a stage, but even they manage to put on a half decent pretence of liking each other.

There's a decent idea for a TV show struggling to get out of all this. Well, there might have been, but it's been strangled at birth. There's no insight into how classical singing differs from pop singing, no indication why either might be worth attempting (oh, how I'd love to see a programme where Kitty J was made to try and sing in a "pop" style, or indeed to inject any sense of insight or understanding into anything she sings, ever). The complete absence of any criticism means that there's nothing to be learned. It's not really anything to do with opera, either. But I suppose "PopStar to PopStar Singing In A More Wobbly Voice" wouldn't have been such a catchy title.

Some will probably say that this is dumbing down classical music or opera. Well, duh. There's not really much point in fretting over that though. The classical music business sold itself down the river a long time ago, and really only has itself to blame that it's become the musical equivalent of a posh bubble bath. Anyway, this is ITV. We didn't come here to be educated. But you might at least hope to be entertained. You'd be disappointed.

ITV's absolute fear of doing anything that might be dangerous, or risky, or innovative, means that all the tropes they've stolen from other shows are neutered. There isn't even any danger that the celebs might look a bit shit, not even Alex James, the King of Being Shit At Classical Music On Telly. I know this because I saw his bit on YouTube this Morning. We actually switched off halfway through Kym Marsh's introduction, unable to take another seven contestants when we could be doing, well, almost anything else. I was hoping it'd be a bit of trashy fun, but it was just dull. That's what you've done, ITV: you've made a programme so dull I couldn't keep watching long enough to see Alex James being Shit at Classical Music On Telly. And that is surely the nadir of dull.


Anonymous said...

Did you deliberately misspell KJ's name so to not offend her representatives??

Anonymous said...

I was entertained by Marcella Detroit's lovely Casta Diva and Darius's Nessun Dorma. It's the first time I've ever heard a bass baritone tackle a transposed Nessun Dorma.

Kym Marsh sang a lovely version of Si tu me quittes and Bernie Nolan was very good too.

petemaskreplica said...

Anonymous person: No, I just got it wrong (corrected-ish now). I daresay KJ's people care even less about what I think than I do about what they think.

Other Anonymous person (or maybe the same one? Come on people, at least come up with a decent pseudonym): I'm sure they all gave a good go at their tunes, they are all people who sing for a living, after all. The point is that the programme's so wretchedly done that I had to turn off lest my brain start dribble out of my ears. I can't afford to lose any brain capacity, I'm low enough as it is.

The question I do find mildly interesting is why it's considered a Good Thing that these pop singers should try to develop an "operatic" style, but the "operatic" people don't need to bother cultivating a "pop" style when they foist their dreadful crossover albums on us. This isn't new, of course: that terrible "operatic" version of West Side Story springs to mind. Did Bernstein think it conferred some kind of greater artistic validity on the show to have it done that way? Does that idea that a classically-trained voice is inherently "better" still really hold sway? And why?

Some of these folks do stuff like R.E.M. in Italian to make it more "operatic", don't they? That makes me laugh.

Marylou said...

To be honest, anybody can sing pop music. I do both, I'm in a band and I'm in classical training, and I can guarantee that a lot more time and effort has to go into an operatic voice than into a pop voice. It's quite sad that people who clearly don't understand classical music in the slightest (" a good go at their 'tunes' ...?") have to be so narrow minded about it. Learning to sing opera is just a new string to their bow. Why slate them, or the makers, for making this underrated art form more widely known?

petemaskreplica said...

Well, I've got a degree in classical music and I've been playing it since I was six, so I do know have a smattering of knowledge abut it. I've also got experience of working in classical music television, so I know how that works, too. I haven't slated the contestants - no, not even Alex James - but I have had a go at the makers. That's because it singularly fails to make this "underrated art form" better known. The point is, it neither educates nor entertains. I didn't expect the former but I hoped for the latter.

I used the phrase "had a good go at their tunes" because that's how they're all presented, no matter what their provenance. (Although come to think of it, "O Sole Mio" is essentially a pop song.)

Anonymous said...

Really interesting comments. Not sure ALL classical music has sold itself down the swanny?! What got me about this show was how badly it was executed - there was an interesting or entertaining (maybe even both) idea there trying to get out. Juliette Pochin makes a good point on her blog about the judging panel. Even X factor has 'qualified' judges. Laurence Llewellyn Bowen?! For goodness sake. It does have a look of 'it's January what are we going to do on Fridays at 9pm' about it.....Though Ian Storey's rant in the Times did no favours to anyone-he didn't exactly make the profession sound terribly desirable!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
petemaskreplica said...

Third Anonymous: Thanks for pointing me in the direction of those. Ian Storey's got his knickers in a right twist, hasn't he? I think he needs to calm down a bit and be thankful he doesn't have to go down the mines or anything. People who go on about how hard their lives are rarely come out of it looking good.

Anonymous IV: Sorry, had to delete your illiterate misogyny. I loved the stuff you wrote about music in the 13th century though.