The Primo Dons shun UK TV tenor Paul Potts

“Britain’s Got Talent” names a salesman cum opera tenor the winner of its competition, and opera critics respond by hashing the victor, 36-year old Paul Potts of Wales:

“Mr. Potts is the sort of bog-standard tenor to be found in any amateur opera company in any corner of the country,” wrote Philip Hensher in The Independent of London. “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.”

None of the Four Tenors made it to the final round of five, so lucky for Potts, the bar was lower than what his critics are holding him to.

Judge for yourself:

I think he’s pretty solid for an amateur, not powerful to listen to, but powerful to watch. He strains and trembles through the song without looking phony. He’s genuinely trying too hard to be acting. He hangs tough through the verse, and only starts to strain on the memorable refrain. His high register isn’t powerful like a lot of opera singers, so he can’t kill the finale section. But he’s singing with all his heart, and he puts on a powerful performance.

By appearances, the variety among the five British finalists was pretty impressive. But Potts stood out by being against type: a workman amateur throwback opera lover (possibly the last one) earnestly singing his way through a pop music format with the support of an audience that doesn’t do opera.

Here’s the aria as traditionally performed by Luciano Pavarotti:

“Nobody can sing ‘Nessun dorma’ and really do it justice unless with it they have 5, 10 years of experience,” said Herbert Breslin, Pavarotti’s former longtime manager. “If they want to have a totally inexperienced, untrained voice sing ‘Nessun dorma’ and the audience is going to fall off its feet, it’s ridiculous. But that’s the way things are in the modern age.”

He dismissed TV as a serious forum for opera. For all he cares, Mr. Breslin said, “they can shoot a tenor out of a cannon.”

You’d think the opera industry would take any popular attention they can get these days.

Pott’s critics aren’t wrong on the substance, they’re wrong on the thrust. Rather than seize on his victory as proof of opera’s enduring power as an art form, these purists bemoan it as bastardizing something in their custody. Potts isn’t singing for the same ears as Pavarotti or Andrea Bocelli. I’m as surprised as you, but apparently there’s an audience for operatic music among people who don’t like the trappings and custodians of opera.

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