Classical music hasn’t been a mass entertainment since the glory days of Italian opera, when – as Bernard Foucroulle puts it – you could hear builders on their scaffolding singing Verdi. Is the medium dying a slow death under the onslaught of popular forms, or can it be brought once more to the front-of-mind of a mass audience?

Plácido Domingo and Mariann Peller at the launch at Manhattan School of Music
© Judit Marjai

Plácido Domingo should know the answer better than anyone: back in 1990, on the eve of the World Cup Final, he catapulted opera into the public consciousness as one of the Three Tenors. Nearly thirty years after that legendary concert at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, Domingo has become involved in a new initiative to get classical music into the hearts and minds of UK and US audiences – more broadly than just opera, this time, and through the medium of popular television.

“I was willing to be involved from the start”, Domingo tells me, speaking on the phone after the New York press reception to launch the Virtuosos project. “I realised that all the popular music that exists in the world is available for everybody basically because of all the years with all the great artists and performers there on television. It is not the same thing for classical music. People love popular artists and their songs because they are accessible to them: television is available everywhere.”

Virtuosos is a talent contest which already has a track record of attracting a mass viewership – in its native Hungary. It was started in 2014 by entrepreneur Mariann Peller, a classical music devotee whose work in marketing and concert promotion had brought her into contact with classical crossover acts which had hit the mainstream (Richard Clayderman, 2Cellos, Ennio Morricone). Dismayed by the falling audiences in classical music, she decided to tackle the problem head on, with impressive results: the show’s fourth series has been reaching audiences of over 700,000 per episode, with the 2017 final not far short of the million viewer mark – nearly one in ten of the country’s population, which is comparable to the reach in the UK of mass market talent shows like The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent.

Leo Perlman, co-founder of Fulwell 73

To bring Virtuosos to the much larger markets of the UK and the US, Peller has joined forces with Fulwell 73, a production company with serious mass market credentials. Leo Pearlman, one of the company’s founders, tells me that he has been exploring music-based talent shows for a while, but that none of them had seemed sufficiently distinctive. Then he looked at Virtuosos. “I began”, he says, “to realise just how popular both the show and the talent that have come out of the show have become.”

When I ask if he thinks that classical music can become populist once more, he answers “I think it’s secretly popular already. When you start actually investigating it, you find a large number of popular artists who have a grounding in classical music and use it as a basis for their popular compositions. I also think that if you look at some of the great movie soundtracks and now some of the great gaming soundtracks, a lot of them are based around classical tracks. So I think it's already there: the public just don't necessarily realise it. If you’re trying to make a show that focuses on a traditional take on traditional classical music, you’ll struggle to make it populist. We’re trying to update it, make it more lively, more accessible and I think if you do that, yes, the stars of the show and therefore classical music can become populist. We know that there are a number of networks, broadcasters and platforms that have been looking at a variety of different formats around classical music and trying to find a way to make it work, and I don't think any of them have yet been presented with the right show. So we know there's an appetite. The traditional talent shows still do OK, but they certainly don't do the numbers that they used to do – nowhere near. And so everyone is looking for what's going to be the next big entertainment format, and this is an area that no-one's cracked yet.”

Jury member Istvan Vardai and Contestent Karsa Vanyo - 2018
© Nikolett Kaszner

I observe that these mass market TV shows seem to be 20% about the music and 80% about the human interest (the performers’ back stories, the emotional highs and lows of their interaction with the judges), which is anathema to classical music purists who feel that things should be 100% about the music (the  Hungarian Virtuosos’ place in the televisual canon is somewhere between glitzy reality TV and the more worthy style of BBC Young Musician). Domingo seems comfortable with the Hungarian show’s positioning. “I understand what you’re saying, this exaggeration. Sometimes, how much information they give you, how much they show you the emotional feelings of people, that can sound cheap. But I think people want to know a little bit about the interpreter, and if we introduce them in a short way, that would be fine. It will be the feelings of the people involved, but it cannot be selling the stories cheaply.”

Pearlman, for his part, is clear that “it’s the backgrounds and the stories of the individuals that compel people to watch it week in week out and to get to know the characters”. And he points out that every territory has its own style of TV and the same programme shows up in very different formats even between the UK and the US. But he’s also clear that the four years of success in Hungary happened as a result of the “amazing job” done by Peller and that the Hungarian experience is stacked with positives and lessons that Fulwell 73 can learn from.

Teo Gertler, contestant in 2018
© Nikolett Kaszner

What kind of person would make a good presenter for the show? Pearlman is delighted that “Plácido Domingo will definitely be taking part as a judge in the series that we make, whether that’s as a returning judge or a guest judge, we’re not sure yet. Otherwise, for our regular judges, we're also looking for at least one or two very populist musicians who – maybe people will be surprised – have a background or a strong grounding in the classics and bring that into their popular music compositions.”

The Hungarian Virtuosos has brought in musicians in three age groups: kids, teens and young adults. A big emphasis has been the post-show follow-up, giving successful entrants opportunities to perform at high profile events in Hungary and in concert halls across the world, from the most famous venues like Carnegie Hall or the Berlin Philharmonie to places further from the classical beaten track like Pakistan and Egypt. The Young Virtuosos Foundation, which organises these events, also provides financial support, instruments and teaching to the aspiring youngsters, including masterclasses with the great and good of classical music, including Domingo, who first became involved with the project when he conducted one of the finals at the Liszt Academy in Budapest.

In spite of the fact that he’s now a conductor, Domingo is curiously self-deprecating about his own ability to help the youngsters: “I can give only my opinion and my feeling – I cannot help a trumpet player or a cello player; certainly I can do a lot more with the singers, but that's the reason we have experts. Of course, if I am working with them, my feeling for music is there even if I'm not an expert in an instrument, I can advise about the musicality, about the feeling.” But he sums up the ambitions of Virtuosos with complete clarity: “You cannot hide talent, but a voice that you bring to television – that voice will be able to grow faster.”


This article was sponsored by Virtuosos Holding Kft.