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

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media


£35000 - £40000 per annum + £90k OTE uncapped, Mob: h2 Recruit Ltd: CORPORATE ...

Opilio Recruitment: Business Development Manager

Competitive: Opilio Recruitment: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a Bu...

Opilio Recruitment: Technical Recruiter

£35k - 42k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We have an exciting oppo...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Support Analyst

£30k - 36k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game