WHAT MAKES A GREAT SOPRANO: Saturday 19th June, BBC2, 9pm ALERT ME
In a recent edition of Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Frank Skinner reminisced about going to the Royal Opera House for the first time to see The Magic Flute. Describing the moment when the Queen of the Night sings her famous aria as transcendental, Skinner couldn’t quite believe that a human being was capable of producing such wonderful music.
This recollection reveals more about operatic singers than the entirety of What Makes A Great Soprano, a rather lazy documentary comprised of clips and talking heads who, rather than discussing what indeed makes a great soprano, talk in glib soundbytes where the sum total of their input is to tell the audience they’re listening to a sensational voice as if we’re so retarded we wouldn’t notice unless we were told.
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa conducts proceedings, the famous soprano proving to be a surprisingly unimpressive compère as she recollects the dull story of her childhood and what inspired her to become a singer (an incredibly pushy mother it turns out). So step one of becoming a great soprano: be brought up by an overbearing matriarchal figure.
Occasionally a smattering of insight manages to filter through, though it rarely ever serves to illuminate. During an analysis of Kanawa’s famous performance as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, and her incredible delivery of the aria Porgi amor in particular, we learn that it’s testing for a soprano due to its slow tempo and phrases that require the singer to sustain clear notes with immense precision. A quick trip to Kanawa’s New York ‘voice consultant’ and a fibre-optic cable later we discover the incredible fact that a singer puts enormous strain on their vocal chords due to the complex range required of them. And so it goes on.
For opera enthusiasts there will be fleeting moments of interest, notably archive clips of Maria Callas and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf ploughing their trade but most will probably become thoroughly irritated by hearing their favourite music reduced to digestable 10 second excerpts. Neither aimed at opera lovers nor those nursing an emerging interest in the form, What Makes A Great Soprano does little to satisfy either demographic let alone live up to its title.