Happy New Year!
Full of idealistic resolutions about gym membership and drastic dietary upheaval, last night I settled into the seasonal gloom to watch the opening episode of a boxed Blu-ray set given to me for Christmas. And I found an interesting message for anyone interested in programming. The show, written by the US team behind The West Wing, has nothing of the speed and toughness of the latter but many of the same characteristics: blondes whose decorative upper bodies conceal advanced degrees in economics; jaundiced political old-timers with bad drinking habits and a brilliant line in put-downs, back-office sex and some strong messages on power-mongering.
But this show has an interesting twist. It’s about a news channel that decides to tell the truth and to stick to the facts. No celebrities, no Sarah Palin moments (I´d forgotten her wonderful speech re immigration ’In Norwegia, those Norwegians wanna have their country to themselves…´), no unsubstantiated gossip. The channel´s ethic emerges from the following scenario: a jaded middle-aged TV news anchor of massive reputation loses his cool on a chat show when asked by a shiny young sophomore ’What makes America the greatest country in the world?´ Pressed hard for an answer, he says that actually it most certainly isn´t, that all men aren´t created equal, that the US is educationally, fiscally, politically and socially a mess – a deeply, deeply shocking utterance in God-blessed America, and a heart-stopping TV moment. Enter his ex-girlfriend, an altruistic, highly humane ex war-zone reporter turned executive producer and a new channel, based on integrity is born.
And, guess what? This fine, decent channels viewing figures are terrible. The overall network boss (Jane Fonda, no less) slides her alarming tinted glasses off her head and snarls ’I´m looking for a show with the guts to put ratings over integrity’.
The interesting message is perhaps something we all know, all recognise and, somewhat cynically, wish we didn´t: really first-rate, truthful work presented without glitz, innuendo or a good smear of voyeurism is much less likely to attract audience than the show – the opera, say – that features neon-painted counter-tenors and inflatable doll contraltos with a curious resemblance to Angela Merkel on skis.
The debate about regie opera – productions driven by the director´s vision rather than the composer´s original intentions – is nothing new of course, and at its worst has generated some ineffingly pompous defence of ’traditional values’. New ideas and fresh interpretations are critical to any art form, otherwise we effectively put a stop to creativity. But the question of ratings, and the enormous emphasis put on the commercial viability of artistic ventures is another thing altogether. Real, truthful, profound art will never pay its own way however it is presented, unless you take Julia Roberts to La Traviata in Pretty Woman or put Mozart into the (justifiably) hit film The Shawshank Redemption with Tim Robbins. As Morgan Freeman says (I´m paraphrasing) ’I sure don´t know what they´re singing about, but it´s the most beautiful thing I ever heard’.
But in opera we have to hang on to our best aspirations – to try to build the magical triangle which links composer, performer and audience – and which creates a new world which may not be beautiful, but which excites and provokes us enough to feel a jolt forward in our thinking.
Now back to Blu-Ray. Will the ratings increase? Will the US learn to love straight talking? Will the hero turn out to adore Puccini? Episode Two tonight. Feel free to join me.