The best seat in the house

Opera on television is nothing new, but a daring BBC initiative is helping it reach its widest possible audience, argues Peter Maniura
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The Independent Online

Having torched the stage with 50 incendiary devices, I settled back to watch the set go up in flames. It was not something that a typical audience of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas would have expected, and not something you would have got past the health and safety officer at an opera house.

Opera on television is different. I was able to celebrate the tercentenary of Purcell's death in 1995 by lighting up the night sky outside a country house in west London where we had recreated the burning of Carthage for a BBC2 production of what was the first great opera in English. It was a spectacular sight and made the performance unforgettable both for those of us who were there and those who watched at home.

There is still a minority of individuals who think that opera should be an exclusive members' club for aficionados only. But television offers a way of breaking through this exclusivity. It makes opera available to the broadest possible audience, while trying things that would be unimaginable in a theatre.

That will mean transforming an aria from Mozart's Don Giovanni into a karaoke contest set in Barnsley, where Don is a local bloke whose infidelities are exposed to his astounded mates in a working men's club. The aria is one of a series of one-minute short films to be shown as part of the BBC's Summer of Opera. Another film will show a black family in a NHS hospital greeting the birth of a child with "Summertime" from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

At the Glastonbury music festival later this month, we will be filming Act Three of English National Opera's staging of Wagner's The Valkyrie, which is being performed by a 93-piece band and 11 soloists. This is not the classical pops or a couple of Puccini arias. It is an entire act of one of the greatest operas ever written, being performed for a rock audience. The project is big, bold and uncompromising, but it could help to take opera to an entirely different level.

The BBC has struck a new four-year partnership with the Royal Opera House, which will double the coverage from Covent Garden on BBC2 and BBC4. BBC2 will be broadcasting David McVicar's new Faust, with Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu and Bryn Terfel - a production that has been sold out for months. Many people want, and have the right, to see it and television enables them to do just that, widening reach to audiences who simply can't get to the Royal Opera House.

We will plan and develop talent together and create work that, in terms of scale and ambition, is bigger and bolder than either the BBC or, say, the Royal Opera could achieve on its own. Co-commissioning for the stage and in terms of special television projects and joint education and learning work are all on the agenda for the future.

Making opera more accessible is an endeavour that is fraught with dangers. In the cut and thrust world of commercial theatre, we've just seen Raymond Gubbay's bold and laudable attempt to reach a West End audience with high-quality but low-budget productions of popular operas come to grief, albeit temporarily.

But both the BBC and Channel 4 have, in the past year, had success with made-for-television films of operas. The Death of Klinghoffer (C4) and The Cunning Little Vixen (BBC2) were very different, award-winning attempts to use the techniques and language of contemporary television to act on the world of opera. Penny Woolcock's film gave a visceral impact to John Adams's reflective opera on the Achille Lauro hijacking by recreating the event in a hard-edged verité style.

The inspiration behind the animated television version of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen came from Kent Nagano, a conductor with a passionate belief in the need to connect opera with a much younger and broader audience. We combined the talents of the animator Geoff Dunbar, the young professional voices of the European Opera Centre and Nagano's Deutsches Symphonie Orchester from Berlin to return Janacek's wonderful score to its roots in a newspaper strip cartoon.

These very different approaches both grew out of a serious engagement with the works themselves. And that, I think, is the heart of the matter. Opera is, and always has been, a wonderfully diverse and paradoxical art form; sometimes high art, sometimes pure entertainment, and sometimes a combination of the two.

The Glastonbury project seems to me to be exactly the right combination of inspiration and madness. Is it a serious endeavour to reach a broader audience, a stunt or just a piece of fun? Probably a mixture of all three. But what it does defiantly is to put opera in a place where a large number of people who would normally avoid it have the chance to engage with it.

A similar spirit lies behind a major BBC2 project for the autumn when the channel will give the TV premiere of a film version of Rachel Portman's new opera, The Little Prince. The work premiered to great acclaim in the United States last year, but this is more than just an example of a continuing commitment to contemporary work.

The cast features children in the leading roles of the Little Prince and the Rose and as the chorus, alongside adult professionals. BBC Talent has built a major initiative around the work. Of the 25,000 children who applied, 6,500 have been seen at audition. Forty children, including the two leads, will be selected for a training school at Sadler's Wells before performing in the film, directed by Francesca Zambello.

It's the combination of elements that makes The Little Prince project so exciting: the goal of creating a new opera for the screen designed to appeal to a broad family audience, the chance to encourage and discover new talent and the excitement and engagement created by the direct involvement in the process of many thousands of children from a wide variety of backgrounds. If opera, or whatever it becomes, is to have a future on television, it will need new talent to create and perform it and a new audience to engage with it.

The writer is Head of Classical Music Television, BBC