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25 June 2010

The Nation’s Favourite Aria

English composer wins Radio 3 title.

By Alexandra Coghlan

BBC Radio 3’s poll to find “The Nation’s Favourite Aria” came to a rather unexpected conclusion last week. Knocking Mozart into second place, 17th-century English composer Henry Purcell’s “When I am Laid in Earth” — often known simply as “Dido’s Lament” — from his opera Dido and Aeneas was named the winner. Not bad for a nation once described by Mendelssohn as, “the land without music”.

Launched back in May, the competition was entirely driven by listeners, who nominated their personal favourites, creating a shortlist which was then put to a final vote.

Despite nominations from an astonishing 15 of his operas (15 more than Purcell ever composed), Italian opera favourite Gisuseppe Verdi failed to break into the top ten. He was in good company however, with Bizet, Rossini, Handel and Beethoven also failing to make the grade, and even Puccini only edging into fourth place with “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca.

The shortlist was described by Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph as, “quite highbrow”, and is disproportionately dominated by works from the more obscure outreaches of the repertoire. Coming in at number nine is Mozart’s “Ruhe sanft”, taken from the early and obscure singspiel Zaide — an unfinished work only rarely performed. Also among the top ten are arias from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila and Dvorak’s Rusalka — none of them exactly core operatic repertoire.

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With a dedicated slot on Radio 3’s Breakfast Show, the competition seemed to signal yet another attempt on the part of the BBC to emulate rival station ClassicFM, with its often interactive, listener-driven programming and accessible tone. Just a few months ago Radio 3 launched their first ever classical chart show, a clear response to pressure from ClassicFM’s ever-growing audience figures.

Voting with their feet — or ears — however, Radio 3 listeners have here emphatically declined a move into populism. Keeping football anthem “Nessum Dorma” firmly out of their line-up, they have shored-up the station’s reputation for highbrow obscurity with their choices, even championing the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde — a piece that stretches the definition of “Aria” well beyond its elastic limits with its organic through-composed conception, and goes some way toward undermining the bleeding-chunk mindset of the competition itself.

At first glance the list looks like the result of audience over-compensation; a charitable interpretation might see it as the result of well-informed listeners keen to share their little-known favourites with a wider audience, while less well-disposed commentators might equally justifiably see it as a public exercise in showing-off.

Either way, Radio 3 executives take note: your audience have spoken and while they’re undeniably fond of a good tune, they’d rather it didn’t come from Carmen. Geek-chic has officially leapt off the catwalk and onto the airwaves. Perhaps now is a good time for the BBC to halt their ClassicFM-style makeover, and return to the earnest, challenging, good-quality programming that they do so well.

Watch top three arias here: