Monday, May 19, 2003


The imminent advent of John Adams' 'Klinghoffer' on TV (Channel 4, UK, Sunday 25 May, 18:55 -- slightly later than it was advertised before) raises the question of past opera-for-TV experiences. The precedent is mixed. Back in December 2000, for example, Channel 4 screened a film version of a highly acclaimed Glyndebourne youth opera, 'Zoe' (with music by John Lunn). The reviews were great [see Duncan Hadfield on MusicWeb for the whole story]. Richard Morrison of The Times declared it "a magnificently atmospheric score, cleverly conceived for young players." But in ratings terms it bombed: just 300,000 viewers. The overall terrestial audience share for the channel went down to only 1%, a tenth of its usual average.

Now I'm biased on this one -- librettist Stephen Plaice hangs out in my neighbourhood -- but this doesn't seem at all bad for a specialist art form in the age of niche and narrowcasting. However, since the advertisers definitely wouldn't wear the recent 600,000 audience for a highly-publicised contemporary version of Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night', Adams will need to pull at least 800,000 to cross the TV executive acceptability threshold. The signs are that it definitely deserves to do so. Whether it will is another matter.

Britten, Gian Carlo Menotti and Jonathan Dove are among the distinguished composers who have been involved in writing opera for TV before. But it is a difficult trick to pull off. Somehow the technology, the overlayed art forms and the intrinsic drama needed to make a TV opera take off don't gel readily. If Adams' musically accessible singalong-a-docu-soap doesn't help create a new genre, probably nothing will. 'Jerry Springer' (see NFE passim) is just too rude. So for those who want to love opera into the FX / videotech age, we'd better keep our fingers crossed and tune in...

Incidentally, Stephen Plaice (whose writing skills have graced fiction, essays, TV scripts, poetry and translating Ernst Bloch into English) has worked with several young opera composers through Aldeburgh Productions. He has also been recently engaged on a forthcoming Birtwistle project.

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