The Week In Radio: Relax to arias of outstanding natural beauty

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The Independent Culture

Opera is brilliant for the blood pressure. According to research, Verdi's arias, which follow musical phrases that are 10 seconds long, synchronise perfectly with the natural cardiovascular rhythm. When stroke and cardiac patients were played rousing operatic music like Puccini's Nessun Dorma, full of crescendos and diminuendos that alternately arouse and relax the body, they experienced lowered blood pressure and better outcomes.

I throw this in because, God knows, it's hard to market opera, though the BBC's new opera season, launched last week, should help. For an art form that uses such masses of performers, opera has rarely managed to be an art form for the masses and now it's most obviously for the minority. Cue a tentative toe into the waters of Simon Cowell culture, which will see a summer of celebrity-led opera features across TV and radio networks. Radio 2 is launching a search for a new opera star with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and Radio 3 has come up with The Nation's Favourite Aria, in which its listeners will be encouraged to sift through a selection of Monteverdi, Mozart and Bernstein and come up with a winner.

In the old days, when Radio 3 would have disdained this Britain's Got Opera approach, there was a joke that the network had so few listeners it would be cheaper to ring them all up and play music down the phone. So it was surreal to discover that when the telephone was invented, the first thing people thought was, why not use this thing to broadcast opera? The Independent's Edward Seckerson, in The Pleasure Telephone, explained how in 1881, demonstrating the telephone at an electrical exhibition in Paris, live performances of opera were chosen because "the powerful projection of operatic singing" would disguise the shortcomings of the technology. For a while it was not unusual to find people standing in hotel lobbies and clubs with telephones pressed to their ears for the latest from the Royal Opera House.

In Radio 4's very entertaining Unsung Heroes, Sarah Lenton dwelt on the occupational hazards of the opera orchestra and described how in the 18th century the pit used to be surrounded with spikes because if audiences hated something they would simply invade the stage and throw lighted candles at the players. Angry audiences weren't the only danger. In 1891, before the introduction of orchestra nets, George Bernard Shaw wrote of watching "the face of the trombone player when he realised the knife that Carmen had just plucked from Don José's hand and sent whizzing down the stage was coming straight for his jugular".

One station that does succeed in bringing classical music to the many is Classic FM. Though often the aural equivalent of being forced face down in a bucket of cream, the station is evidently doing something right because the latest Rajar figures show more than five-a-half-million people now regularly tune in. Classic's jewel in the crown is the breakfast show – the world's biggest all-classical music breakfast show no less – presented by ex-Radio 1 DJ Simon Bates. Bates gets almost 2.8 million each week, making his audience, as Classic FM point out, rather bigger than the whole of Radio 3's audience all week. Now I know it's invidious to talk numbers in the classical music wars, so I would only say Simon Bates certainly qualifies on the blood-pressure effect. The first part of his morning show, "The School Run", is so tranquilising, it's almost sedative. Studded with request slots for Surrey schoolchildren taking grade-8 cello or going on gap years, it's cheerful, big on old favourites and presents a vision of a world untroubled by recession or emergency budgets. Sitting in the traffic while the theme from The Godfather swirls around you, it is actually possible to feel your adrenalin ebb away. Your mind drifts into vacancy. Indeed, you start to wonder how slow your pulse can safely go.