How opera companies can learn from reality television.

For such a dramatic art form there are some very dull films around promoting opera. No wonder people are not inspired to go buy tickets.

The best compliment I was ever paid about one of my films was from a friend who said "I know nothing about opera but I was riveted. I really wanted to know what was going to happen to these singers."

A costume fitting in my latest video.

The key line there is "I know nothing about opera," and in those few words is the battle many opera companies are facing. If you are going to introduce new people to the art form you need to get over that hump. Most non-believers think they need to have studied opera in some way to enjoy it (wrong), that they need to know many languages (you don't, there are surtitles) and they also think they will hate it. (don't be such a chicken)
Singers during staging rehearsal
Fast forward to every reality talent show you have seen with winners singing opera arias. If these shows prove anything it is that the potential to introduce new people to opera is there but you have to do it through human stories.

The difference between the films I make about opera and the ones published by the majority of opera houses is that l introduce reality into them. It's probably something to do with my background as a television journalist at the BBC for many years. Not for me are the opera bosses sitting behind desks telling you about the new season (zzzzzzzzzz) but fly-on-the-wall style filming telling real stories about real singers and artists involved in creating an opera.
Director Aria Umezawa during staging rehearsals

When I go to the see the Met in HD at the cinema (yes I also go to real theatres and see it live) one of the best things about it is the intermission. There on the big screen are singers covered in sweat and fake blood - telling you how it was for them. Who doesn't like a bit of reality?

Why NOT show that opera is full of real people with real life interests? Not for me the polished end product of weeks of work - but instead actually showing the weeks of hard work themselves that go into a production.

This week I was commissioned by Opera McGill to make two new trailers for their upcoming production of Handel's Ariodante  showing just that. "You're going to see men in kilts, you're going to see just pure passion on stage," says countertenor James Brown at one point. Conductor Hank Knox adds: "It's basically soap opera." Director Aria Umezawa shows how singers are going to throw parts of the set around during the show. "I can't remember the last time I saw a set destroyed on stage," she says, laughing.

Those are the sorts of lines that I think will make viewers sit up and take notice and perhaps think they should give opera a try.

The video trailers are about the story of the opera and the look of the show. They show the rehearsal process, the staging process, the costume fittings and the singers talking about their roles. They are not polished promos - they are the real opera story. I think that's what people want to see.

Opera McGill director Patrick Hansen, who has commissioned me to make many films over the years (just check out Opera McGill's YouTube channel)  recently met an opera fan in Amarillo, Texas who asked him. "Whatever happened to Chelsea, Rose and Jonah?" He was referring to the year I followed three singers around  and made this film - A Year in the Life of Opera McGill.
That's the sort of opera film I'd like to be known for - one that stays in the mind of the viewer and makes them want to know more.

If you 'd like me to tell YOUR opera story -  leave a comment below or contact me at

To see more examples of my work check out my website at

Read A documentary in 24 hours.


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