Opera’s TV Hero

Arts organizations are always talking about how to cultivate new audiences. Tried-and-true has been the Theory of Exposure: Get the art in front of people, especially youngsters, and they will acquire a taste for the art.

That’s been around at least since The Muppet Show first aired in the late 1970s. Opera advocates rejoiced when Beverly Sills starred on the variety show. Some predicted a new generation of opera lovers (and, more importantly, opera patrons) newly inspired by Sills’ performance and magnetic personality. Now comes Paul Potts. You’ll remember he’s the painfully insecure lad with bad teeth who wowed the judges on Britain’s Got Talent when he sang Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.” He was greeted with deafening applause. Even the evil Simon Cowell smiled. The burst of beauty that came out of that rather un-beautiful mouth inspired some 30 million hits on YouTube.

The same hope for Sills now goes for Potts. With a new CD, One Chance, and a performance yesterday on Oprah Winfrey’s YouTube webcast, people are again keeping their fingers crossed: Maybe this adorable schlub really can fuel new heights of interest in opera. Perhaps. Similar predictions were made when Luciano Pavarotti joined Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras for The Three Tenors in Concert. Listeners loved the recording and critics did, too, predicting a return of opera’s authority.

What’s certain was the huge surge in CD sales: The Three Tenors is among the best-selling classical music recordings of all time. What’s uncertain is whether the gonzo gala helped opera.

Though Potts is an able singer, opera better look elsewhere for a hero. What makes him appealing is his touching personal story, which is a product of television, a very different medium: A former cell phone salesman who looks like he still lives with his mother faced the odds, and the dread Simon, to achieve the dream of singing opera.

The underdog wins, and all that heartwarming stuff. Good story, good TV, good YouTube? A resounding yes, yes and yes. But is it good for live opera? It remains to be seen.

If the medium is the message, sometimes the message is unclear. It seems opera, and any other art form, would do better by staying focused on the art itself, not on an entirely different medium. It’s beside the point.—John Stoehr

Paul Potts sings Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma”