by John Stoehr
Arts organizations are always talking about how to cultivate new audiences. A tried-and-true strategy 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 kind of thinking has 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. They predicted a new generation of opera lovers (and, more importantly, opera patrons) who would be inspired by Sills' powerful performance and magnetic personality.
The same went for the other art forms: jazz (when Dizzy Gillespie and Lena Horne were each guests), musical theater (Liza Minnelli, Zero Mostel), ballet (Rudolf Nureyev), and classical music (Liberace).
Well, maybe not Liberace (too many sequins, too much lowbrow appeal, some might say), but you get the point.
Not coincidentally, the 1970s are the years in which we began to see the seismic de-escalation of federal art-funding, the beginning of the America's still-felt de-industrialization and the so-called Culture Wars: Nixon's Silence Majority, Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, a nascent "men's movement," Jimmy Carter, the squishiest of Democratics, getting even squishier when he got run off by a killer bunny rabbit.
Anyway, with the Muppet Show, you had a faint glimpse of the New Deal's middlebrow dream: high art marrying popular entertainment. For those concerned about high art's losing cultural authority, and tax dollars, to the increasing dominance of popular entertainment, the thinking was: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Now comes Paul Potts.
You'll remember he's the bashful, painfully insecure lad with bad teeth who wowed the judges on Britain's Got Talent when he did his Pavarotti impersonation, singing Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" (you'd know it if you heard it).
He was greeted with deafening applause. Even the evil Simon Cowell smiled. Again, Simon smiled, with delight even. The burst of beauty that came out of that rather un-beautiful mouth inspired some 30 million hits on YouTube.
The ideological descendants of the people who were ga-ga for Beverly Sills trumped their predecessors by being even more gonzo for Paul Potts. And now with his new CD, appropriately titled One Chance, and his reprisal of Puccini Tuesday (Nov. 6) on Oprah Winfrey's special YouTube webcast, people will no doubt once again keep their fingers crossed: Maybe this adorable schlub really can fuel new heights of interest in opera, whet their appetite for high art, for this valuable tradition.
Perhaps, though it seems unlikely.
Similar predictions were made when Luciano Pavarotti joined Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras to record The Three Tenors in Concert. Listeners loved the recording and critics did, too. Soon you heard predictions of (and maybe hopes for) a surge in opera's popularity, for tickets to see the Met, the Houston Grand and so on.
But that didn't happen.
What did happen was a surge in record sales: The Three Tenors is among the best-selling classical music recordings of all time. So consumers did, indeed, go ga-ga for opera, but it wasn't for opera categorically; it was opera particularly, the feeling of that historical moment in which the most famed tenor sangs to an audience of thousands during the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the birthplace of opera. (it's easy to surmise that record sales soared based solely on the Mediterranean mystique of it all).
Back to Potts: He's an able singer. But opera better look elsewhere for a hero. What makes Potts appealing is his touching personal story, which is a product of television, a completely different medium from live performance: A former cell phone salesman who looks like he still lives with his mother faces the pressure of competition (and the dread glare of Simon Cowell) to achieve the dream of singing opera.
The underdog wins, the meek inherit the earth, good triumphs over evil, and all that heartwarming stuff.
Good story, good TV, good YouTube? All a resounding yes. But is it good for opera? I'm not convinced. And I'm not convinced opera categorically will benefit from his unlikely success. If the medium is the message, it's best to remember that sometimes the message is unclear. It seems opera companies, or any other art organization, would be better served if the focus remained on the art, not on an entirely different medium.
See it again before YouTube's copyright software kicks it off the site: