British adults watch over 30 hours of television a week on average, and popular shows from X Factor to Bakeoff can unite us in everything from celebration of the winners to condemnation of the formats. A new opera from Bloomsbury-based Streetwise Opera takes a closer look at our love-hate relationship with television in People Watch and asks the question — what really happens when we watch TV?
"We wanted to draw on the whole spectrum of hope, from dark to light, looking at not only the positive, life-affirming aspects — apparent in the moments when the TV inspires our characters to acts of generosity or self-improvement — but also the negative ones," explains composer and self-confessed Homes Under the Hammer obsessive Stef Conner. TV talent shows can inspire viewers to sing, dance and juggle their way to the top, but have also been identified with unrealistic aspirations among young people in particular, and a rise in celebrity for celebrity's sake.
The opera, a co-production with Tête à Tête, was devised in collaboration with the performers. "There was no way we could have come up with characters as colourful and interesting as the ones they imagined themselves," says Stef. "All we had to do was keep reminding people to think about how their character might respond to what they were watching and all kinds of brilliant ideas came pouring out." Material improvised by the cast was then set into a libretto by artistic director Bill Bankes-Jones, and developed by Stef into musical settings incorporating pastiches of well-known TV show themes and advertising jingles.
Although people watching television might not sound like a typical theme for an opera, both Streetwise and Tête à Tête are committed to returning opera to its mass entertainment roots and creating works that are accessible to a wide range of audiences. "What we wanted to explore dramatically and thematically seemed almost impossible to set to music and to me that's a perfect springboard to writing something interesting and challenging!" laughs Stef. "Whether your starting point is a story of courtly love from the ancient world or an anecdote about a London family watching Britain's Got Talent, there's a way to pinpoint and magnify the beauty in the scenario and create an affecting artwork in response."
People Watch opens the Tête à Tête Opera Festival 2015 on Tuesday 21 July at The Place, 17 Duke's Rd, London WC1H 9PY. Tickets £7.50 available from the Tête à Tête website.