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Inside TV's Christmas classical highlights

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Peter Maniura Peter Maniura | 17:32 UK Time, Monday, 20 December 2010

Filming 'Sacred Christmas' with The Sixteen

Filming 'Sacred Christmas' with The Sixteen

Head of BBC Classical Music TV, Peter Maniura, introduces the BBC's Christmas music programmes and looks ahead to a broadcast highlight of the New Year...

For me, Christmas is all about 'raising your voice in song' - celebrating the season together and in community. Because we live in a period where people feel themselves to be 'time poor', it's also about finally being able to have the time to engage with some 'big things', and for broadcasters, that means being able to feed into the Christmas tradition of 'performance'. On Christmas Eve afternoon, BBC 2 has Mozart's Don Giovanni from this year's Glyndebourne Festival. I was lucky enough to direct this magnificent production for television, and it does transfer wonderfully to the small screen - it's a hugely challenging production, technically, but at the heart of the cast is the suave, satanic Gerald Finley: assuming you're at your holiday destination and you're not doing last-minute shopping, Christmas affords the time to sit back and enjoy it. Don Giovanni will also act as a curtain-raiser for Radio 3's The Genius of Mozart - another very 'big thing' which will bring you ten days of uninterrupted Mozart starting on New Year's Day.

Conductor John Wilson with Sir Michael Parkinson and (l to r) Anna Jane Casey, Seth MacFarlane and Curtis Stigers

The stars of Swingn' Christmas

At the opposite pole to Don Giovanni is Swingin' Christmas - we're bringing Big Band Swing back into the mainstream in a programme conducted by John Wilson with his own orchestra and hosted by Michael Parkinson: we know from the MGM and Rodgers and Hammerstein Proms which we televised is that this music commands enormous affection, and increasingly large audiences - so it's a 'passion' project for us. Together with some soloists familiar from those Proms - Seth MacFarlane, Anna Jane Casey and Curtis Stigers - John Wilson and Parky will be shining some starlight on this wonderful music.

Presenter Simon Russell Beale at the grave of Christina Rossetti

Richard Morrison was writing in The Times last week about our Sacred Music series, which returns for two back-to-back programmes - A Christmas History and A Choral Christmas - on Christmas Eve. Richard quoted Harry Christophers, conductor of The Sixteen (who've been with us throughout the series), that 'being invited to do these Christmas specials makes us feel a bit like Morecambe and Wise'.

Sacred Music has been enormously successful with audiences and in the first of the latest instalments, you'll see Harry and presenter Simon Russell Beale, as they visit Oxford to look at a small scrap of paper - actually, it's part of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, dating from 2nd century Egypt, and it contains the oldest known music notation and lyrics of a Christian hymn. Harry transcribed this Hymn to the Trinity, and in the programme, he and Simon perform it together. One of the great joys of Sacred Music has been the way in which we've brought scholarship like this into the centre of the journey over ten programmes: I attribute this in no small measure to the combination of talent which Simon and Harry offer - there is no genre of music into which you cannot draw an audience if you have the right mix of presenter and performers. Simon is pictured here at the grave of Christina Rossetti, who wrote the words forming the basis the carol, In the Bleak Midwinter, which features in the programmes.

Sacred Music of course sits happily alongside the traditional Carols from King's broadcast; for decades, Placido Domingo has also been a Christmas favourite on our screens and he's back on New Year's Eve with Rigoletto, his second baritone role this year, after Simon Boccanegra, and filmed 'live' in real time. Originally broadcast in three instalments, the repeat brings the whole opera together. It was a privilege to be part of the production in Mantua - it was my first experience of this great Renaissance centre, linked to the birth of opera through Monteverdi, and it's another opportunity to ttake our audience into the heart of opera as we did with Tony Pappano's Opera Italia series earlier in the year.

There's more - next February you'll be able to see Graham Vick's extraordinary production of Verdi's Othello, created in a disused industrial space with 250 Brummies as chorus, dancers and actors - the cast crowned by Ron Samm's towering performance in the title role. This is the first time a black tenor has performed the role in the UK, and there's an accompanying film, Director's Cut, looking at Graham Vick's approach to the production, and to his brilliantly extreme take on Aida on the floating stage at Bregenz, Lake Constance, which you may have seen on your screens earlier this year.

Programme information for the broadcasts can be found by following these links:

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