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In British hands, reality TV sings

Trust the Brits to come up with polite reality television. They already do polite drama. They're the ones, after all, who gave us ''Masterpiece Theatre" when Hollywood was pushing ''Starsky and Hutch." Now, they've succumbed to that formulaic cultural nightmare, competition TV.

That said, viewers appalled by ''American Idol" and ''The Apprentice" should try ''Operatunity" tonight.

The show chronicles the yearlong search and training by the English National Opera of a neophyte without a shred of operatic experience. The winner gets to sing with the pros in a single performance of Verdi's ''Rigoletto" at London's largest hall, the London Coliseum. As publicity stunts go, this one is inspired.

Against tall odds, ''Operatunity" is utterly charming. The tone is set with the opening shot of a man bellowing an aria in the shower. Amateurs from all over England compete for the coveted slot. Unlike their low-rent American counterparts, these people are less interested in fame and filthy lucre than they are in opera itself. They simply love to sing arias, and it shows.

There's no Paula Abdul-like coaching here, none of the bald commercialism of The Donald. They're nice people from small worlds who behave well under the increasingly trying circumstances of competition. Whatever their private thoughts, there's a sweetness to this crowd. ''It's not very English to want to win," explains one.

Who are these folks? Let's see, you've got your pig farmer, supermarket cashier, home builder, investment banking recruiter, former chef, marketing official, and legally blind mother of three, to name some. There's no one here with a public school drawl, no aristos at home at La Scala. Their disarming lack of affectation demolishes our cynicism.

The opera company motors around the English countryside auditioning hopefuls. ENO staff educate the candidates during tryouts to the proper use of their bodies as well as their vocal cords. ''They don't use their whole bodies," says ENO voice coach Mary King. ''They're doing it from the neck up." Toward that end, she counsels one candidate to emulate when singing ''a spectacular projectile vomit."

A panel of ENO judges pares more than 2,000 hopefuls to 100, then 20. We watch a sales assistant sing ''Let It Be," a gospel singer unload ''Amazing Grace." My personal favorite is the information technology salesman who pitches the Kinks classic ''Sunny Afternoon." The pig farmer informs us, ''When I sing, the pigs shut up."

Eventually, we're down to six candidates with serious pipes. There's wonderful footage of Jane Gilchrist, mother of four, talking about her dream of singing professionally as she toils behind a supermarket checkout counter. We are introduced to Denise Leigh, the mother of three who is legally blind, who has a great voice and an impish streak. There's a young guy from Belfast and another from a tourist office of the Bahamas who speaks for all of them when he says, ''In my heart of hearts, I am a singer."

The winnowing process can be profound. After singing for the judges, the bank recruiter says, ''I've had more emotions in this piece than I have in the last 30 years."

Two, rather than one, of the hopefuls are ultimately chosen to share the key role of Gilda in ''Rigoletto." One loses critical rehearsal time because her throat is inflamed. The other develops a fever before the big night. They're terrified and they persevere. They melt the heart of the coldest misanthrope.

The losers are class acts in defeat. They show up at the Coliseum to cheer for the winners. The performance is rather anticlimactic after the rigors of the competition. No matter. The families of the two winners are also there, the kids cheering madly when the final curtain comes down.

How come we never make anything this nice for the tube?

Sam Allis can be reached at

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