Tune in, switch off - Have a wail of a time

29th January 2010 at 00:00

My subject is opera. I know, you are thinking dumpy divas, Wagnerian vibrato and staccato surtitles, or more probably by now, Match of the Day. But it may change your life: my wife was just like everyone else until she discovered opera.

So there was no fighting over the remote control when ITV1's new reality offering, Popstar to Operastar, an incestuous child of The X Factor, made its debut. And with mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins and tenor Rolando Villazon as mentors and judges, there seemed plenty to keep us both happy.

Eight chart-topping singers attempted to perform well-known operatic arias, accompanied by a live orchestra. The idea of extending people by developing new skills is admirable. It's called education and we do it every day.

Behind the scenes, we had glimpses of the coaching. "It's just like singing in a foreign language, really," observed one contestant, recognising an aria from the Stella advert. Even the presenters were out of their comfort zone. Alan Titchmarsh looked in need of his gardening gloves while Myleene Klass was squeezed into a dress so tight she gave the impression she'd had an out-of-body experience.

Blur's Alex James stuck the right note - his only one of the evening, though - when he described opera as the musical equivalent of the pyramids. Villazon, who at least knew what he was talking about, reminded us that opera is like being alive: "The souls of the performers touch the souls of the receivers." I sat back to wait for radio contact. Come in, Katherine Jenkins.

Jimmy Osmond's karaoke-kitsch performance was silk purse music turned into sow's ear singing. Vanessa White had potential but, despite Katherine's coaching, there was still plenty of woozy, whooshy breathing. She could have been performing in a force nine gale.

Meat Loaf, mercifully judging not singing, stood to offer corny comments, fuelled by his own pizzazz. He felt Bernie Nolan was singing to the sky, so he offered to be her sky. Marcella Detroit's song was a prayer so Mr Loaf was "gonna be there to answer it". He could write soundbites for politicians.

It was about as true to real opera as a cheap plastic cloth is to fine dining, as close to Covent Garden as table tennis is to Wimbledon. This was a party game with a studio audience, like a rowdy class without a teacher; opera as pop, rather than the other way round. Waiting for the winners to be announced had all the suspense of bingo and about as much logic. The loser was Alex, who had sung like a miscast lead in a school musical.

The next night I went to watch Carmen at the cinema, beamed live from the Met in New York, and finally I experienced what Villazon meant about souls touching. If you are still not convinced, perhaps you should go back to the football

Ray Tarleton is principal of South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon.

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