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Paul Potts: Not the Cardiff Singer of the World.

Talent shows have a long and distinguished history. Now they are regularly piggy-backed on top of the reality TV format. Britain’s Got Talent intended us to see that you did not have to be young or an aspiring rock star to ‘make it.’ And indeed, canine and other animal tricks, jugglers and a modern-day version of Shirley Temple figured prominently in the series.

The eventual winner was the endearing Paul Potts, whose day job was with carphone Warehouse. An ‘opera singer,’ his untrained voice was provided yet another hit for Nessun Dorma. Since the show, Potts’ debut album was Number One for two weeks, and we mean Number One of the Charts themselves, not that pale imitation, the classical charts.

By coincidence, the final of Britain’s Got Talent was staged the same night as that of the Cardiff Singer of the World. The latter has become regarded as the foremost competition for classical singers. There was an audience prize here too, but at £1500, it was 60 times smaller than what awaited the winner of the Talent Show audience vote, let alone what Potts subsequently earned from concerts and royalties.

Potts, of course, is not an opera singer any more than Myleene Klaas is a pianist. So is this yet more depressing news for musicians, who undergo years of training and hope, only to find there is nothing at the other end.

At one level, yes. And yes, twice. First, the single greatest advantage someone can have on the  marketing front is that someone knows your name. That is why celebrity, or even ‘celebrity’ breeds celebrity. Many TV presenters were already famous in other fields. We like to see familiar faces on our screens. Big companies, who need to sell a lot of units to justify their investment, know this perfectly well. Katherine Jenkins, for example, already was known to Manchester United supporters for singing anthems before matches – a single crowd at Old Trafford is larger than the number of people to whom any particular journeyman classical musician’s name is familiar. The single most helpful thing a child classical musician can do today in Britain is be televised on the final of BBC Young Musician of the Year.

This is intuitively very plausible. Just think how many times you have to buy a present for a birthday, Christmas, whatever and have no idea what to get. Ah yes, you think, I’ll buy that latest book / CD / DVD that people are talking about.
Second, when someone buys a CD of Paul Potts, or indeed of the winner of many similar reality TV talent shows – Operatunity, say – they buy not the object itself, but a little piece of the myth that every person can follow their heart and realise their dream. The mere sound of the training in someone’s voice, let alone instrumental playing, is enough to distance them from a ‘normal’ member of the public. Paul Potts is ‘one of us.’ Elisabeth Schwarzkopf isn’t. Opera stars can have their own celebrity among opera fans, but with very few exceptions, (Bryn Terfel? Lang Lang in China), real classical musicians find it very hard to cross over. The very thing they train to do alienates most of the public.

What the classically trained singer needs, instead, is stamina. What she or he hopes to gain, instead, is a career precisely doing what the training has intended. It is interesting that where the prize is actually a professional engagement (as with the Music theatre How do you solve a problem like Maria? and Any Dream Will Do), even the audience at home has voted for the only trained competitors.

Is it worth it? Is that enough compensation for what for most will be a lifetime of insecurity and frustration? Arguably, the Don’t put your daughter on the stage message is not made sufficiently clear to students full of hope and energy, although music colleges now make elementary attempts to give their charges marketing advice. At any rate, no-one becomes a classical musician out of instrumental (no pun!) rationality.

But maybe it was always thus. If Bach was the father of modern classical music, he also left an archive of grumpy letters about how little he was appreciated. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, almost any composer you can name felt he was misunderstood. There may be no more moral to this tale than that every individaul has his own story, that, as Napoleon said of his generals, the most important quality to possess is that of being lucky.

Ying Chang