Across the pond there is a new reality show, Popstar to Opera Star. I love me some opera, and I really wanted to check this show out. While hardly “stars,” the show essentially throws together some has-beens, kinda-weres, and still-might-bes and ostensibly removes them from their cushy pop comfort zones towards the world of operatic arias. For mentors, we have bubbly “popera” singer Katherine Jenkins and legitimate tenor Rolando Villazon, he of the multiple vocal problems and questionable career decisions. Once show time hits, these mentors form half of the panel; the other half is TV personality Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen… and Meat Loaf! While none of the judges have anything particularly constructive to say after each performance, Meat Loaf’s “critiques” basically consist of wanting to have contestant Jimmy Osmond “on the floor” if Jimmy’s wife wasn’t present (don’t ask). But one could excuse the inane ramblings of the judges if something truly horrifying or special (unlikely, but hey, you never know) happened on the stage. Right now, it’s all so painfully ordinary.
Why does a show like Dancing with the Stars work? On the one hand there are total train wrecks like Steve Wozniak and Wayne Newton and Tom DeLay, and viewers end up questioning their ability to walk let alone dance. By comparison, there are dancers who, despite obvious athletic advantages, execute some pretty amazing routines with the help of their partners’ clever choreography (I’m looking at you Shawn Johnson!). The audience gets to cringe and cheer in the space of a singular program (to a lesser extent, this is probably the power behind the Idol audition episodes). We all know that reality television is terribly phony and ultimately manipulative, but I’m tuning in because I want you to push my buttons! I’ve had a lousy day at work or the milk went bad or I’ve gained five pounds. I deserve to laugh at another’s ineptitude and celebrate something done with skill and grace (come to think of it, that’s probably the power behind televised sports). But this Popstar to Opera Star show isn’t cutting it. With the exception of one truly dreadful performance from Blur’s Alex James, every other contestant is dwelling in the middle of the road.
Take Kym Marsh of Coronation Street. Her second week rendition of “The Brindisi” from La Traviata was not inspired nor was it stomach turning. The same could be said for covers of “The Toreador Song” from Pop Idol’s Darius and “Summertime” from Vanessa White of The Saturdays. No one hit it out of the park, but rather they all resembled second graders one has to endure while at a chorus concert. It’s all breath and nerves before the microphone (which kind of trashes the notion that these pop singers are receiving any kind of real training in singing without amplification). You get the hint that Kym, Darius, and the departed Vanessa might be capable of something if the show played to their admittedly limited vocal strengths (Kym in particular, while hardly a budding Callas or Tebaldi, has a sweet tone). But the show is playing it safe with arias we all know lest the stars crash or, less likely, soar. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The flip side of this brand of mediocrity is the recently offed Jimmy Osmond (you know you’re in trouble when you’re the Osmond even Dancing with the Stars won’t take). For the first two weeks of the program, he wasn’t even given the chance to sing opera proper but rather belted out “O Sole Mio” and “Volare.” Now as the proud granddaughter of an Italian singer, I have no issue with those songs per se. But I’m reasonably sure that they are not operatic arias. The show tried to right this wrong with Osmond’s swan song, but it was too little too late. If Osmond was so bad that he couldn’t be trusted with Puccini or Verdi or Mozart, then that’s what he should have been singing from the start. Whereas the show won’t take a chance on what could be a good performance from Kym or Darius, they coddled Osmond. Now I suppose I sound like I want to have it both ways, equal parts nurturing and sabotage behind the scenes. But at least I’m suggesting injecting some drama into the proceedings, arguably the most important ingredient in opera and reality television. And anyone who has ever attended an opera knows that there is a kind of anxious anticipation when a high note looms (will the tenor fall off of it? will the soprano have enough breath?). Would there were even a pale facsimile of this aspect of the art on Popstar to Opera Star and the risk of things going really wrong or really right, it would hold my interest. For now, I’ll wait it for it to take a cue from Dancing. Remove Rolando and Katherine from the panel, force them to sing legit operatic duets with the pop singers to make everyone look good (if possible), and watch the bravos both genuine and ironic boom forth.