An EMI marketing executive in New York discusses her latest protege, French opera superstar, Roberto Alagna, a 32-year-old who is already being hailed as "the Fourth Tenor". She outlines her marketing strategy with great relish. "It was important in bringing Alagna to a broader-based audience to create a real image campaign, much more like a pop artist. We wanted to make Alagna accessible to the new customer, to let people know that not only is he a great tenor, he's a hunk." She is merely reiterating the notion of classical music as the new rock'n'roll.

This is clearly - and cleverly - brought out in Naked Classics, a new four-part documentary for Channel 4 which conducts the viewer melodiously through the modern-day big business of classical music. In case you've been cryogenically frozen since the football World Cup in 1990, the classics have become like Richard Branson: there every time you switch on the telly or open a newspaper.

Nicolas Kent, the series producer on Naked Classics, attempts to explain the phenomenon. "The Three Tenors at Italia 90 was a watershed. That sold 23 million albums - which is in the league of the bestsellers in any genre. Classical music is now permeating every aspect of consumer consciousness - ads, sport, movies. It has absorbed the values of modern Hollywood. Now there is an incredibly powerful marketing machine designed to identify marketable stars. Good looks and charisma - qualities quite separate from musical virtuosity - are what recommend themselves to record companies. There is a new level of marketing frenzy."

Such frenzies can be risky; the next-door neighbours of hype are our old friends, backlash and burn-out. In the documentary on Alagna, the star has to miss a rehearsal of La Boheme because he has been double-booked. The show's director, a decidedly cheesed-off Jonathan Miller, sits forlornly in the rehearsal-room and tartly observes that: "We never know where we are with him ... the more more highly-paid and famous these people become, the faster and looser they play with their schedules... I feel apprehensive for his future in the profession. If he continues to behave in this rather irresponsible way, he'll incur a great deal of hostility." Even Alagna's agent admits to concern about overexposure.

Helen Sprott, Channel 4's deputy commissioning editor for arts and music, echoes those concerns. "Pavarotti was nurtured over a long period of time. There's not the same sense of careful nurturing now. My anxiety is that these young hot artists hit the high- spots too soon."

Over several Naked series (Naked Hollywood, Naked Sport and Naked News), Kent has developed the priceless gift of gazing at his subjects without stars in his eyes. "The motivation is to try to challenge people's assumptions about that particular world and change their frame of reference," he contends. "If you delve into classical music and strip away the elitism and the black ties, you find a very vibrant world underneath."

His style is not to become so cosy with his subjects that the lines between PR and reportage begin to blur. "This is a fair- minded portrait of Alagna, but it is warts and all," Kent says. You do get things that the EMI marketing department would probably prefer to air-brush out. I don't think they're overjoyed about the film."

But the hype-machine rolls on regardless. Even setbacks can be marketed as minor stumbles on a triumphal march. The EMI marketing woman is not visibly perturbed by Alagna's disappointing debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. "I think we've created Rocky," she eagerly tells a meeting.

Is Sprott worried that all this will leave her open to charges of vulgarising classical music? "One will get accusations," she concedes, "but isn't anything a vulgarisation that isn't a man in black tie standing by a piano at the Wigmore Hall with his hands folded singing `Winterreise' "? Through these films, you can begin to reach an audience which might not otherwise switch on a concert. You have to make efforts to communicate with people."

Once people come into contact with classical music, she concludes, "they're bound to get hooked. It's sexy."

`Naked Classics' starts Sun 7.30pm C4




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