Wednesday, February 20, 2008


It figures the Canadians would turn the “American Idol” formula into something less mean-spirited, more down-to-earth than glamorous, and yet in the end smarter and classier.

Instead of “pop” singers and performers, “Bathroom Divas” is a show about people who have an itch to sing opera, and enough of a voice and, in some cases, training, to maybe pull it off, with some help from professionals.

Another difference from “Idols,” the judges on “Bathroom Divas” are tough, opinionated, and sometimes cuttingly blunt, but not in the juvenile, nah-nah, Simon whatever-his-name is way. More like professionals can be in any field, but because they are opera lovers as well as professionals they want each contestant to do their best and to help them do it.

I don’t watch “American Idol” but got turned on to it when I was in Georgia recently, and could see what captivates the TV audience—becoming enamored with a contestant and then rooting for them, caught up in the competition, etc.

But the judgments meted out on "American Idol" often seem way too arbitrary, once they get past the contestants obviously chosen to be ridiculed, or exploited for their lack of talent (but, unfortunately for these contestants, genuine ambition and dreams).

That meanness doesn’t appeal to me.

But while staying with my older son and his family in the Berkshires the past few days, I caught this Canadian show, “Bathroom Divas,” on which hundreds of contestants vie for six spots to go to “opera boot camp”—where in the span of a few weeks they get intense coaching, and after five are eliminated, one gets to perform on stage in concert with the Vancouver orchestra.

No “Hollywood” hype and “fame”—just a dream come true for these Opera aspirants.

One of the six finalists is a construction worker who’s never even been to an opera (I had never been to one either until I was into my thirties, and only a few more since then, but enough to see no matter how boring aspects of it can be, the high points are unmatched anywhere else). He’s a working-class guy with a wife and kids, who cried when he made it to the final six. Another is a big, burly, 24-year-old, country-boy hunter, who’s had some vocal training but is undisciplined (he smokes, likes his beers and pulling gags, etc.).

The other four are women, including a mother-daughter pair—the mother 58 and the daughter in her 20s and both of them with incredible voices—a “native-American” Canadian, and a Cher-and-Celine Dion impersonator.

According to the judges, The “Indian” woman has the voice with the most potential, but she’s also the most insecure and has difficulty taking in and acting on the initial lessons.

I can’t believe how into it I got. Mainly because they’re all just working people not trying to get Hollywood fame and fortune and all the glitz and bling that “Americans” seem to think will bring them happiness, no matter how many Owen Wilson, Heath Ledger, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan stories the media covers.

These Canadians would maybe like careers as opera singers. But most of all they seem to just want to be recognized for the power of their voices and the hard work they’ve put into their attempts to sing arias. And they want to learn how to improve and be in the company of people who share their love of opera and have succeeded in some area of the opera world. i.e. the judges—two men and two women, singing coaches and a director, who don’t always agree, and can get adamant about their preferences and criticisms, but always for the love of, and good of, the voices.

And that, in the end, is the most compelling thing about the show, the voices. The reality that the human voice can even achieve the demanding operatic range of pitch and emotion in the first place impresses me. But then to watch as a few lessons and hard work and discipline improve on these natural gifts is mesmerizing.

At least to me.

If you see it listed on your plethora of TV choices (on the TV I was watching it was a channel called “Ovation” which unfortunately I don’t get back in Jersey, a big disappointment), check it out and see for yourself if it isn’t compelling in a way “American” “reality” TV shows usually aren’t, and probably wouldn’t care to be. Our loss.


harryn said...

good story - sorry i don't get 'ovation' out here in pennsyltucky either; but loads of tv evangelism, wrestlemania, 'idol' derivatives, reality tv, and 'extreme' stuff - augmented with myopic news and the rare international[nyc, dc, or philly] incident as though the 'heartland' was the center of the globe ... thank you bbc, npr, and web -
interesting points as well - international perspective, less mean-spirited, down to earth ...
my wife - born in scotland and educated in england, spent most of her adult life in paris and arrived here in the states with her son eight years ago... i'm always more than a little embarrassed when she appears visibly shocked or appalled by american tv, 'news', and opinions - crass, nasty, trite, and ostrich are usually the adjectives that follow ... my pride in this country has never been obscured by a false sense of patriotism, political bravado, or incessant quest for banality - but i've been reminded almost on a daily basis over the past eight years how pervasive and one dimensional our 'message' to the rest of the globe is ... also, in most of the 'civilized' world, being international often requires little more than going from nj to pa or ny - as a result objective checks and balances regarding social behavior and tolerance seem to be woven into the fabric of life as well as a respect for the arts and traditions of other cultures ... here it seems that internationalism functions as a commodity and art as a manufactured disposable - warhol baroque maybe ...
michael - you said 'feel free to wail' ...
tangential: when i heard bush's comments about fidel's decision yesterday[on bbc] regarding the oppression and dictatorial rule of castro's regime and the need for fairness and democracy - i almost thought it was a public apology on bush's behalf ... now that would be 'change' ...

Lally said...

And that's exactly what I was hoping for when I wrote "feel free to wail"—you expressed my sentiments better than I could. Thanks. And as for most of our politicians' and fellow citizens' arrogance when it comes to thinking we have the "most democratic" system etc. Just look at the votes for Obama that weren't counted in New York's recent primary, or the incosistencies and obvious tampering in the Ohio vote count in the last presidential election and the Florida voite count in the previous one. As for Cuba, lift the embargo and let the light shine in, and out, and I bet their system becomes more democratic and fair (their education, health and economic system already is more fair than ours already) quicker than all the countries we don't have an embargo on (i.e. China, Saudi Arabia, et. al.).

AlamedaTom said...

Amen to both of the previous comments.

I was really moved by Obama's 45 minute speech last night after his Wisconsin win. But one of the things that grabbed me the most (I'm guessing it did not resonate with many others), was his specific reference to the importance of teaching art and music in our schools. Repressive societies never support the arts, and indeed often suppress them. Open, healthy societies take the opposite view, realizing that making art/music and/or enjoying it, elevate the citizenry to levels that lift the whole culture.