Coming soon: the voiceover opera

Annette Morreau on Channel 4's latest attempt to put opera on television
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The Independent Culture
Opera and television seem strangely attracted to each other. While serious music on TV is virtually an endangered species, bar the odd Prom or competition, schedules are instantly cleared for an opera relay - Covent Garden's Traviata, for example - despite one view, ironically from Richard Eyre, the director of that very Traviata, that "whole swathes of the population have been deterred from opera by the miserably inert attempts to translate performances [from the stage] to television that are inherently untranslatable".

That hasn't stopped people trying to "re-conceive" opera for TV. Currently, both the BBC and C4 are running experiments - the BBC with its gloriously wacky Operavox series of animated, half-hour "compressions" of well-loved masterpieces; C4 with three new one-hour operas - by Michael Torke, Gerald Barry and husband-and-wife team Mike and Kate Westbrook - specially commissioned with the modest aim of "redefining the relationship between opera and television... to create a new genre using a wide range of television disciplines... and recording techniques... to deliver an audio experience that would be impossible to achieve if sung live."

Grand words that seem particularly puzzling in the light of C4's three new works, since the crucial question - what is it that TV can offer that the stage can't? - seems barely to have been debated. Do close-ups and poor lip-synching to mimed words in a completely alien acoustic really add up to "an audio experience impossible to achieve live"?

Torke's music, for example, is generally defined by its punchy rhythms and driving energy. But, in King of Hearts (his first opera, and a project he took up only after Michael Nyman pulled out), the sound balance, while helpfully geared towards the intelligibility of the words, is hopelessly geared against the impact of the music. Whenever Torke complained, he was told not to worry: "Michael, when the soundtrack album is released, we'll re-mix it."

Barry's homoerotic re-realisation of Handel's sublime Triumph of Beauty and Deceit boasts word-setting that is virtually impossible to comprehend - a fault both of the libretto (too complex) and of the music (driving rhythmic unisons doubling the voices). The discreet, but almost illegible, subtitles smack more of a hasty fix than an artistic choice. Barry insists that the level of audibility is about the same as you would expect on stage. So much for "creating a new genre" where the shortcomings of one medium are overcome in another.

It's only in the Westbrooks' Good Friday 1663 that a hint of a breakthrough unlocks the potential of opera on television. A simple period tale, sumptuously filmed in Tom Jones style, the story essentially takes place in the head of its heroine, Belinda. Good-looking actors present the action, while all bar one of the voices are supplied by an unseen Kate Westbrook. The "voice-over" opera - a masterly solution.

But at what musical cost has this series been realised? Anything called a "TV opera" suggests that the final say rests with the composer - operas, after all, are defined by their scores. But in all three cases, C4's composers spoke of being treated as outsiders. Torke was handed a polished libretto to set. Barry and Westbrook handed over expertly recorded scores to be filmed to playback, but neither was involved in the "look" or asked to the shoot, and both are disappointed with the visuals.

The problems with opera on TV may well lie with the overriding role of the director, reducing the composer, as in the film world, to the lowest rung. But perhaps, with the disappearance of the singing mouth, the composer's work will have greater potential. A case of prima la musica e poi le "visuali"?

n `King of Hearts', the first of C4's three `TV Operas', is shown tomorrow at 9pm. `Operavox' is on BBC2 on Friday at 7.30pm

n Correction: contrary to the impression given on yesterday's Classical Music page, Radio 3's programme about Elgar's unfinished Third Symphony (19 March) will only include extracts from the composer's original sketches