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Do We Need To Dumb Down Opera For It To Remain Popular?

8th Jun 2011

Opera has been performed in the UK since the 1700's but for many it is stuck in the 18th century and is the pastime of the rich and snobby elite.  However, opera seems to be transforming itself into "popera" in the hope of appealing to a new generation of audience and the question we need to ask ourselves is opera being dumbed down to please the masses?

It all began with the 3 tenors – Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras.  The trio were well-known names within the opera world and three of the greatest tenors of the 20th century but largely unknown to the majority of people.  After their first joint concert at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, however, it all changed and they became an overnight sensation.  It was an amazing event and appealed to opera buffs and novices alike due to their wonderful voices, charismatic personalities and popular song choices.  There is no doubt, that the 3 tenors inspired huge numbers of classical music novices to explore opera for the first time and made them aware that there really is some great music in the operatic repertoire. 

Since the 3 tenors, the industry has become awash with imitation opera cross-over groups from Il Divo to G4.  The 3 tenors have also inspired other cross-over opera groups from Amici Forever to All Angels. It is even possible to have 3 tenors sing at your wedding, corporate event or birthday party in the form of surprise singing waiters to entertain your guests.

If popularising (arguably ‘dumbing down and sexing up') opera breaks down the perception that it is dull or elitist and stimulates interest in an art form predominantly perceived as inaccessible then groups such as Il Divo and All Angels must be welcomed. Both have enjoyed spectacular commercial and chart success with a mixture of operatic and more popular classics. Individual cross-over artists have also built themselves a niche in the classical music market such as Katherine Jenkins, Russell Watson, Alfie Boe to name a few.

A recent programme to hit our screens is the ITV1 competition "Popstar to Operastar" which focuses on celebrities learning how to sing opera.  One big problem with the show is that most of the arias are transposed up or down to suit the singer's range and the implication is that opera singing can be mastered in a matter of weeks. The most confusing aspect of the programme is that Roberto Villazon, who is one of the most respected and talented opera singers of our generation, is adding his "gravitas" by co-hosting the show, creating the illusion that it has been easy to reach his level of achievement and refined singing. You just can't learn or execute opera singing techniques in a short period of time.  Like a fine wine, a voice takes many years of skilled nurture to reach its maturity.

Darius who won the show in 2010 went on to make his debut in Carmen at the 02 arena as the Toreador with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the biggest production ever in the UK – a role which in the world of opera is usually given to baritones who have been training for at least 6-8 years and have slowly built up their careers and vocal talent and stamina.

Opera is a powerful, exciting art form and incorporates some of the most dramatic plots and passionate music ever written. It is the combination of the visual elements of theatre, striking costumes and scenery, with live orchestra and voice. But it is the voices that are at the heart of opera and therefore we must never compromise on quality when trying to make it more popular.