Always try to get the worst seats for the opera. Upper circle. Foyer. Toilet. The nearest bus stop. The further back the better. You’ll regret it if you don’t. There really is nothing more off-putting than being able to see the singers. Opera up close, as Princess Margaret once said, is just two fat people shouting at each other in a large room. And then there’s the clown make-up and trannie costumes to deal with. It all makes much more sense from afar, where it assumes a lovely dreamy abstract fuzz. Was that a smile? Or a stroke? Who knows. The words and music will carry you along.
But even ‘good’ theatrical acting looks absurd close up. Gemma Arteton knows this. She let the truth slip out during the new arts visiony thing at the Beeb the other day. Alan Yentob was trying to get her to wax lyrically about the BBC’s decision to broadcast more live performances. What was the difference between acting for a theatre audience and acting to camera, he asked? Subtlety, she replied. Yeah, exactly.
And yet this is the director general’s stroke of genius: to televise all this crude semaphoring. Sure, us diehards will enjoy it. We’ve had years of training. We’re inured to the fact that most opera singers look like they’re drowning on stage. But for newcomers weaned on, you know, actual good acting the effect will be disastrous. We’ll lose them forever.
I’ll admit, there are advantages to screening to the box at home rather than the local cinema. No one’s going to care if you whip out a hot dog or tub of pop corn in the final act of Tristan and Isolde – unlike some grumps I encountered when I tried to do this at a screening of the Lehnhoff Glyndebourne production a few years ago. (Some people are so touchy.) And the nosing around back stage that most screened operas and plays do was made for telly. The behind-the-scenes interviews with New Jersey stagehands during intervals of screenings from the Met and their Cape Canaveral-like countdowns are a joy. But that’s just the beauty of reality TV for you.
So don’t be fooled. None of this is to do with accessibility. It’s to do with a misguided BBC paternalism. Focusing in on the least attractive element of opera and theatre – the close up visuals – will repel not entice. Rather than giving people what they want, the BBC are offering a crap version of what people definitely don’t want. A very BBC reinterpretation of ‘public service’.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.