On Paul Potts and musical snobbery

By now, most everyone online has heard of Paul Potts, the 36-year-old mobile phone salesman who won Britain’s Got Talent, thanks to soaring operatic performances of Nessun Dorma and Con Te Partiro. What the Web hasn’t heard of largely is how members of the operatic community are taking to Mr. Potts’ sudden rise to fame at the expense of their cherished ‘art.’

Most vitriolic of all is The Independent‘s Philip Hensher, whose article tears Paul Potts’ performances to shreds. Among the many harsh words the opera critic has for Mr. Potts:

  • Mr Potts is the sort of bog-standard tenor to be found in any amateur opera company in any corner of the country.
  • He spent the money (from winning Michael Barrymore’s My Kind of Music) sensibly but, on the evidence, fruitlessly, on singing courses in Italy
  • His tuning was all over the place
  • His voice sounded strained and uncontrolled
  • His phrasing was stubby and lumpy
  • He made a constipated approximation only of the fluid sound of the Italianate tenor.

He also turned his nose up at people in awe of Potts’ performance, claiming they were in the grips of Stendhal syndrome, an “evidently beauty-starved audience… thrown into ecstasies by Potts singing two minutes of Puccini.” He then goes on to say they would not care for real opera, as a mind in the grip of Stendhal syndrome cannot “encompass much in the way of beauty, or intellectual power, or extravagance; it tends to turn away and describe what it has seen as boring.”

I don’t know why, but I was extremely offended by Mr. Hensher’s column. Opera’s reputation – as he himself puts it – as boring is through no fault of Mr. Potts, nor of the music itself, because, as Potts’ performance showed, that kind of music can transcend and affect the human heart, despite its being played on the television medium. Opera earned this reputation because its benefactors and major players collaborated over decades of performance to make it the highbrow, unreachable performance art that it has become. I have always believed the masses can appreciate opera, but the nose-in-the-air society snobs have pushed opera away from the masses.

Opera fans should be rejoicing that Paul Potts has made opera somewhat cool again, even if only for a little while. But no! They harp on Potts’ inferior performances, his flaws and weaknesses, instead of thanking him for reviving interest in Puccini’s Turandot. They bitch about this untrained upstart who will never have a real career, and harp on about how his sob story pushed him to the championship and the title, instead of agreeing instead on helping him make opera ‘fun’ and ‘cool’ and ‘relevant.’

These people take all the fun out of enjoying music, whether or not it is done flawlessly. These critics are the same people who lambasted Baz Luhrmann for daring to redo Romeo and Juliet the way he did with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes; these critics are the same people who ripped to shreds Gerald Butler’s Phantom of the Opera; these are the same critics who can’t stomach that M. Butterfly and Jeremy Irons can be mentioned in the same breath. These same critics, who shun Charlotte Church, Il Divo, Josh Groban, and all the proponents of popera. They go and ruin it for everybody.

If the comments here are any indication, Potts could be headed for a lucrative career in popera. Like millions of others, I loved Potts’ performance. I am no opera expert, but I was moved by Potts. If I get the opportunity to enjoy Turandot in its entirety, I have Paul Potts to thank for piquing my interest in this otherwise long-forgotten Puccini piece. Meanwhile, I dread to think about the damage Hensher and his highbrow musical snobbery will have wrought on Potts fans who thought they would be able to enjoy opera thanks to Potts.

If this is what it’s like in “real” opera, where I need to meet a certain requirement to enjoy it to the fullest, where people in the industry will challenge every person’s right to a career in it, then I’ll just have my poperatic Il Divo and Paul Potts, thankyouverymuch.

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