Hero worship is nothing new in the annals of classical music – a world of flaunting superstars and lonely, adoring followers.
In his book The Queen’s Throat, Wayne Koestenbaum describes the infatuations of homosexual men for operatic divas or, more specifically, for the divas’ throats.
Yet, over recent weeks, Britain has seen and participated in a different and equally fascinating form of idolatry.
The name of Paul Potts will be familiar to most. He is a salesman by day, a tenor by night. He was once bullied and recently battled a benign tumour and a broken collar bone. He won a reality television show by singing popular operatic hits. He now has a best selling album and the love of half a nation behind him. He has transcended his past. He has an expressive voice, though it needs work, and he is but the latest on the long list of popular or crossover opera singers (the term wouldn’t exist were the gap between classical music and other genres not so troublingly wide). Those who think his success arose through dubious means can at least hope that he, like other musicians who achieved fame through television, will quickly be forgotten.
But the case of Paul Potts is worth examining, for the man’s success has sparked an abnormal amount of media and public interest, manifesting itself in both unusually grovelling praise and exceptionally vehement criticism. For some, his success is the tragic product of a society that thinks nothing of hard work and all of temporary, undeserved stardom; for others, his pure, undefiled talent and sincere expression rank him as the best thing to happen to British music in years. I can’t remember a time when such exaggerated reactions were applied to such a seemingly meek and unassuming man who asked for none of them. Initially, Potts could have been commended for introducing classical music to an unsuspecting public. But as it is, the case has moved far beyond music – it stands as a demonstration of the power of media manipulation and a sad indicator of just how many innocents are willing to be caught up in the fanaticism of popular opinion. Whether or not they join it.
People enjoy hearing Paul Potts voice, but there is more to the situation than that. A glance around the internet makes it immediately clear that the artists personal background is under close observation. We all like the underdog to achieve, and here it seems clear that a 21st century British public, fascinated by the human condition and determinedly compassionate, has projected its own feelings of unwanted sympathy onto Potts as a means of greatening his success. For many, Potts has become a symbol of all failure and underachievement. “He has had such a hard life” sobs one online fan. “He has been a nobody all his life” claims another. Loveable Paul has been consistently beaten down and bullied, and consequently his achievement is all the more impressive. To the television show judges, he is “a frog”. The music can be discounted: it is Potts’ touching personal journey from the frog to the prince that is important.
But this is a game of Chinese Whispers, and the journey is much exaggerated. The truth is that Potts has performed opera on the stage before – he has sung with Bath Opera in the most taxing of principal roles, he has appeared in concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and, on a singing course in Italy, he was chosen (as one of the best students) to sing before Katia Ricciarelli and Luciano Pavarotti. None of it elevates him beyond amateur status, but the idea that he has risen from nothing is a fallacy. Likewise, public speculation has fabricated (or at least implied) a lonely private life. Actually, Paul Potts has/had a steady job (if being ‘team leader’ at Carphone Warehouse is now seen as a failure, British class snobbery is seemingly alive and well), has a loving wife and, enviably, has a vast, engrossing passion for music.
Indeed, some have questioned whether his shy, retiring appearance is nothing more than convincing acting – after all, he was a Liberal Democrat councillor from 1996 to 2003, and has even appeared on a television talent show before (winning 8,000 in the process). Potts is a figure of pity, a man who is judged not on his talent but rather on his ability to transcend a dubious, falsified past of hardship. Because, for some indiscernible reason, the slyly selfish modern trend is to prefer sympathy for failure over commendation for success.
“She lov;d me for the dangers I had pass’d” says Othello of Desdemona.
And perhaps we love Paul Potts similarly, even pity him (as Desdemona does Othello): we pity the man’s failures past, we pity his troubled, quizzical face gazing whimsically from the album cover, we pity that spindly tenor voice, pushing mightily to hit every note. Even Potts has adopted the story, noting “I used to feel so small and insignificant. But now I know I am someone”. And pity will take him far. The achievement of Andrea Bocelli, another so-called crossover tenor, is heightened because he is blind. But that pity is lasting (if highly demeaning to the artist) – Bocelli will remain blind. Paul Potts’ future is not so certain. He may seem a pathetic figure now, but soon he will have the money (100,000 for winning the television show is but the start), the tour, the book and, rumour has it, the film. Soon, the failure designated to him will seem far behind. And then what? The dissenting voices of doom are already growing on internet forums and blogs, though they are invariably smothered with agonised, antagonistic accusations of jealousy and snobbery. I sense that when Potts is not a lowly phone salesman singing out of love, but a luxuriating celebrity singing for more money, attitudes may change.
Whether yes or no, the situation is repellent. Paul Potts did not choose to become an overnight celebrity and to undermine the hard, thankless work of so many musicians of all genres who will never gain the recognition that he has effortlessly achieved – but it nevertheless happened. Last week I saw a concert given by the fabulous Young Artists at the Royal Opera House, and I doubt that any of them will be signing record deals any time soon, or ever. Not that a record deal is much of an achievement for the passionate musician, but in our materialistic, possession-orientated society, it stands as a symbol of ultimate success. Ironically, in attempting to introduce opera to a public desensitised to The Arts through governmental apathy, Potts has only embroiled himself in a frenzy of overblown hype where the music itself is all but forgotten. He has stopped being a singer and become a symbol: now a symbol of the underdog’s success, perhaps next a symbol of the brevity of false success and the destructive potential of the media.
With regard to the latter, I hope not, for Paul Potts is possibly the one innocent in the tale – an apparently genuine, likeable man standing dazed amid a symphonic barrage of fantastical hero-worship, and a man who may well be broken when the public realises that it has overreacted. All Paul Potts wanted to do was sing opera and share his love. And sadly, amid the drama, people have forgotten to do the most important thing: they have forgotten to listen.