Flogging a dead art form

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The Independent Online
You Don't Have to Like Opera] The new series starting this week (ITV, Friday), might never have come about had it not been for a momentous chance meeting in the cloakroom of the Royal Opera House one cold evening last March.

It took place between the young comedian Zik Rapport and the television franchise bigwig Ralph Bandolier. They had both been queuing for their coats for 10 minutes. They were getting a bit ratty. They recognised each other. They asked each other how they had enjoyed the opera, and both said: 'I was bored out of my mind.'

They next met a few months later in the gents' lavatory at half-time during an English National Opera production. One asked the other how he was enjoying it. The other said: 'About the same.' They both laughed and went out to the pub for a drink, missing the rest of the opera, and giving their partners slight heart attacks. It turned out that on each occasion they had both been brought along unwillingly (one by his wife, the other by his plastic surgeon). While having a guilty pint, one of them laughingly suggested that there should be a detoxification programme for opera as there was for other addictive activities. Zik Rapport thought no more of it, but the next day Bandolier, who was just about to be awarded a franchise for his company, Casino TV, rang Zik and said: 'Seriously, if there isn't a detox programme, what about a TV programme that does the same job?' And You Don't Have to Like Opera] was born.

The idea is simply that Zik Rapport, with the help of his famous cast of characters, tries to deal with the sophisticated propaganda war waged on behalf of opera, and let some common sense in.

'You are led to believe by opera buffs that opera is the highest form of music,' he says, 'as well as the highest form of drama, and that it also contains the stuff of what life is all about. This is absolute nonsense. Opera is a museum art, full of ridiculous conventions and illusions, which fitted well with the grandiose world of Victorian expansionism but sits strangely now. Except as a form of escape, or a substitute religion, which it is for so many. For the rest of us, it makes as much sense as rebuilding the Crystal Palace or starting another Albert Memorial.

'If opera were one of the highest forms of music, then musicians would like it. In fact, most musicians avoid it. And if opera really were one of the higest forms of drama, then opera singers would not act in a manner that has not been seen since the early days of silent movies; the way an opera singer expresses an emotion is exactly the same way those early actors showed jealousy or joy. Remember how their eyes used to roll and they clutched themselves? Remember how they overacted when they looked out through the window and saw the landlord coming for his rent or the grizzly bear coming to take off their babies? It's all alive and well in opera.'

The last thing Zik Rapport wants to do is become too serious about the whole subject ('Opera is as serious as the balance of payments already - I don't want to make things worse'), so apart from extracts from the worst operas in history, the programme will also feature characters created by him.

Like who? Well, like the opera singer who is as temperamental and egoistical in real life as he is on stage. The man who never listens to singers in the opera he's at, but only reminisces about how good other singers were in the same role. The opera critic who travels all over the world on a freebie trip, just to see a minor cast change in a production of Don Giovanni in Buenos Aires. The fat tenor who is so famous that he only cancels concerts now, and would ruin his reputation if he ever reappeared. The television executive who cancels a whole evening's viewing just to put on an obscure Verdi opera . . .

'Can you believe that?' asks Rapport, frothing slightly. 'It isn't often that something happens that I wouldn't dare invent but . . . well, that was the ultimate act of opera arrogance. That man's monstrous 'de haut en bas' feeling that opera is somehow good for us is justification enough for our whole series of You Don't Have To Like Opera] Opera, we shall keep telling people, is something that has already happened. All the great opera composers are dead. And so are all the great operas. Necrophilia is against the law, I believe. So why is it the norm with opera?'