It’s a law of TV that there are the things we ought to watch and there are the things we do watch. Stowed away on my digi-box are entire series of chewy, worthwhile TV – like the last run of Dexter and great slabs of The Wire and a BBC4 doc about Ted Heath and Harold Wilson that I fully intended to watch but (come on, get real) never will.
Instead what do I turn to, given a spare moment on the sofa after a taxing weekend? Come Sunday evening, what holds me slack-jawed in wonder? Forgive me, but it’s ITV’s laughable celeb-reality gala Popstar to Operastar.
This is clearly a shameful show for a grown man to watch. The whole idea of having pop has-beens bid for our votes by murdering Verdi makes me shudder, or should do. And the execution is pretty dire, too.
The judges sit cheek-by-jowl in a sort of gilded parody of a theatrical box. Because of the characters involved, they look like a judging panel as drawn by a 1970s Punch cartoonist: tiny, stick-thin Vanessa Mae next to big, ebullient Simon Callow, next to curvy blonde Katherine Jenkins next to a massive pair of black eyebrows, under which lurks Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon.
Villazon saw how manic his fellow judge Meat Loaf was in the first series and decided to go further. So he throws his arms around like a Sesame Street puppet of Rowan Atkinson while yelling about “a CHAKA-CHAKA PERFORMANCE!” (which means a full-blooded one, I think.)
He did this when Claire Richards sang an aria from La Traviata recently. The former Steps singer sounded sort of like a real soprano for a while, but then she came to a passage with little runs of short notes, and started making a yapping sound like a small, angry dog. The judges loved it.
Popstar to Operastar twitches with peculiarity and naffness, but it has a logic to it. When you listen to real opera (which in my case is not often), you take it for granted that the voices sound rich and full and everything is in tune. But on TV, brilliance gets boring. Whereas incompetence is always fun, especially when people struggle to overcome it, and fail.
Which must be why four times as many people watched Popstar to Operastar as watched the proper opera singers on BBC Cardiff Singer of the World the other night. We don’t want high art, we want fish-out-of-water. That may be shallow, but light entertainment is shallow.
It’s about dethroning the puffed-up, treating serious things (like grand opera) as frivolous and frivolous things (like who wins a B-lister singing contest) as earth-shattering. And weirdly, of the two shows, it’s the trashy talent show that makes you appreciate opera singing more. Listen to little Joe McElderry try to belt out La Donna e mobile, and you realise how truly, bloody hard it is.