I've come to two decisions tonight:
1. I love Howard Goodall
2. I do not love Stefan Zucker
Both these men hosted classical music-related shows on TV tonight, and I have to say they both did a very good job of showing just what an effect a host has on a documentary.
Howard Goodall's Big Bangs is one of the best documentary series I've ever seen. Over five parts, he talks about 'big bangs' in musical history: the ideas and discoveries which have shaped and changed music over the centuries. He's a little like a musical Robert Winston: he takes a subject which in other hands might be scholarly and incomprehensible, and makes it enjoyable and copable-with, without condescending or over-simplifying. Tonigh's 'big bang' was Equal Temperament. The words meant nothing to me, but as I discovered, it's all about why we have the notes we do to work with in Western music, why they sound good together, etc. One of the best things about this series, other than the totally fascinating things it covers, is Howard Goodall's sense of humour. He doesn't just make it interesting, he makes it funny: explaining the concept of different keys with the aid of dozens of wineglasses representing notes, for instance. I think he's just wonderful.
Stefan Zucker, on the other hand is not. And it's a shame, because in his documentary Opera Fanatic he had a subject to work with which was infinitely more attractive than equal temperament: a trip around Italy, meeting and interviewing the female stars of the 50s, whom he heard as a child when his mother was an opera singer. Can you think of anything better than a road trip full of Italian sopranos and mezzo sopranos? Exactly. But Stefan Zucker (who? the world's highest tenor apparently) came as close as anyone could to ruining what would otherwise have been a sublime film. He had the two same questions for everyone: what are the aspects of expressive singing? Do you approve of the use of the chest voice? Somehow the fact that he kept getting the same, to him unsatisfactory answers to these didn't stop him asking them. The film doesn't just document the interviews, it also covers the difficulties he and his team had in getting these interviews filmed. Really, with an interviewer as unpleasant as I found Zucker, it would have been much nicer to have only the interviews: in themselves they were fabulous- these women do absolutely nothing to break down the diva stereotypes.
If we could cut out all the Stefan-heavy bits, Opera Fanatic has some wonderful stuff in it. My favourite was Giulietta Simionato; Leyla Gencer was excellent too although I could have done without Stefan's decision to tell her he found their interview was 'una cosa erotica'. Not all of these women were entirely endearing: there were some big egos at play here, the shadows (and sometimes more) of old rivalries (these were all women of the same era and of similar repertoire), and a couple of negative attitudes. The thing is, I couldn't help but think he deserved it. The unbelievably difficult interview with Marcella Pobbe, for instance. With a different interviewer I would probably, even while enjoying the diva behaviour, sympathise to a degree with the poor person asking the questions. But here I had to agree with her when she refused to answer his 'stupid questions'. Magda Olivero, Fedora Barbieri, Anita Cerquetti, Gina Cigna and others: these women are all gorgeous, if a little egocentric. If only we could have had more interview and less Stefan Zucker. For all I've written, I think the problems with this film are much better summed up by an Amazon.com user review, left by a John Nygro on December 13, 2001:
"As I watched this video, I become more and more disgusted at the behavior of this creature known as Stefan Zucker. He is a petty, affected fop who kept asking each of these talented women about whether or not they used "chest voice." These are women who have sung the greatest roles in opera. Of all the possibilities of WHAT to ask them, he's on some personal mission to validate whatever freudian motivation he has for proving the validity of his own mother's voice (or lack of it). So, he's a terrible interviewer. I've heard better enunciated Italian by first year language students. He's a creature with a HUGE ego, who thinks he actually has something to say about the gifted women he has interviewed. The best part of the video is the reaction of each of the singers as they have that "deer in the headlights" look, as if to say, "Can this THING be real." He is an embarassment to all men who love opera and have to fight the stereotyping that comes with that. That being said, the entertainment value of the tape is high--this tape is an exercise in the display of an ego which most small screens cannot contain."
Couldn't have put it better myself. But if the opportunity presents itself, do watch Opera Fanatic, it's worth it for the interviews and for the beautiful archive footage it contains of all the singers in performance in their heyday.
CD du jour is Renée Fleming: Visions of Love. It's all Mozart and it's all unbelievably, stunningly, beautiful. I realise that Renée is a Mozart-n-Strauss kind of girl, so this is hardly a surprising fact, but my experience of Renée has been limited (well, non-existent) until rather recently, and this is my first proper taste of her Mozart. Good lord, isn't she fabulous? I've got this CD from the public library for the next two weeks: I don't know how I'll cope after that, I may have to buy it. I like this CD even better than Bel Canto. I'm sure Renée would have done just fine as a jazz singer, but I for one am unendingly thankful that in the end she took up opera instead.