The Royal Opera recently announced that it would be furthering its collaboration with the BBC by playing host to the television reality/contest show 'Maestro.' In contrast to the first season of the show, there will be only four contestants (made up entirely of C-list celebrities, mostly unqualified in music) who will compete to conduct one act of an operatic classic on the main stage. Superlatives were everywhere during this press conference; you could almost see the fear of one who is desperate for 'mainstream' publicity in Chairman Tony Hall's eyes. While the idea is novel and respectable for attempting to enlarge audiences (by educating and presenting them with the spectacular that is a regular day at the Royal Opera), one wonders if perhaps a line has been crossed.
I certainly do not wish to enter into a conversation about high/low art, and, let me be clear, I see no issue with setting a reality show within the historic and respectable confines of the Royal Opera, but surely we can all recognize that the show's premise is dubious in the extreme. Propagating the common misconception that conductors are "the glue that holds everything together," that they have total control over the entire operatic enterprise is simply absurd. To top that, using totally unqualified contestants who will undoubtedly struggle every step of the way (that's entertainment, of course) to conduct only one act of an opera seems at best preposterous and at worse...well, cruel.
The entire venture is clearly aimed at audience acquisition, and we will watch as these contestants relay their growing fascination with the operatic experience until one of them wins and waves their arms around for one act, pretending that they have an ounce of artistic gravitas to communicate, some control over some of the greatest musicians in the world. But real conductors do not control; they inspire. I wonder, will people take opera more seriously, will they give the magnificent art form a chance, after seeing this unabashedly poor marketing strategy play out? Will it bring them to the Royal Opera?
I think it's unlikely; after all, ticket prices are not getting any lower. Still, I will watch curiously, hoping to be proven wrong.
More information is available at www.roh.org.uk.