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Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Definitely Not the Opera

Posted by Maximum Fun on 6th November 2010

Vital stats:
Format: stories on everyday themes from ordinary people and the Canada-famous
Duration: ~75m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: last 51

Definitely, this show is not the opera. But the set of all things not the opera — even of just the things on the radio that aren’t the opera — is big indeed. Because it’s from the CBC and because it’s stitched together out of interviews with folk of both the ordinary and semi-famous varieties, I could probably just say “This Canadian Life” and be done with it. Yet Definitely Not the Opera [RSS] [iTunes] isn’t quite that. How it isn’t quite that is difficult to pin down, but then again, so’s the show itself.

My exhaustive research reveals that, during its 16 years of existence, Definitely Not the Opera has been ever a-changin’. Sometimes it’s focused on pop culture; sometimes it’s not. At certain points, its length stretched to a staggering four hours; now it hits more like 75 minutes. It was once hosted by Spark’s Nora Young; now it’s hosted by Sook-yin Lee, who non-Canadians might know from Shortbus, John Cameron “Hedwig” Mitchell’s crazy sex movie. On this program, which has never once strayed into the realm of crazy sex — at least while I’ve listened — she’s a more raggedy-sounding Ira Glass, pitching the concept of the day and proceeding to ask person after theme-relevant person about their experiences, feelings, and feelings about their experiences.

Broadly speaking, it is is indeed the This American Life model: “choose a theme,” “bring you three or four stories on that theme.” Except that, with a slightly longer episode length and a slightly shorter segment length, DNTO might be said to back in more stories per. But they’re not “stories” in the TAL sense, exactly; they’re more conversational and less production-intensive. You hear the voices of Sook-yin and her fellow contributors more often than those of Ira and his. DNTO’s segments are less production-intensive, in that the words and the music and the whatever else aren’t as “woven” into a single fabric. Which show you’d prefer all depends on what sort of an experience you want to have. If you prefer your commentary on modern existence less crafted but perhaps more loose and spontaneous, this is the one you want.

The program’s bagginess extends to its choice of subjects and its willingness to grow grand questions or statements from the soil they provide. The question of whether this difference frees the Canadian show from the pretensions of its Stateside counterpart or whether it condemns it to fluffy irrelevance falls, again, to the individual listener. Sook-yin and company take on such pillars of the human condition as bathroom conduct [MP3], our ignorance of our neighbors [MP3], and what the deal is with tooth anxiety [MP3]. All fair game, certainly, and all immediately relatable — underestimate the importance of this at your peril — but they admittedly carry a faint whiff of the trivial. (Or is this really dependent on the subject matter at all? Do I only smell that on the occasions when the show itself treats them trivially?)

If Definitely Not the Opera, for all its richness of entertainment, has a problem, it’s a larger version of the one its title suffers. They grab your attention. They’re aggressively non-rarefied. They’re jokey. They’re unusual, but not all that unusual. But their mission and the information they convey remain muddled. What goes on in the show is often amusing and filled with humanity, but, as with anything you have to describe in terms of what it isn’t, it can be hard to tell if that’s what’s supposed to go on.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]