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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Singing soon on a screen near you

By Norman Lebrecht / February 11, 2009

Here is the first sign of spring awakening in the long freeze between arts and screen. Go down to Trafalgar Square. At almost any time of day, you will find a film crew at work in or around the London Coliseum. This week they are shooting six sidebar features on English National Opera’s upcoming Doctor Atomic. Last week, it was live Boheme on two channels of Sky Arts, front of stage and back.

On ENO’s website, a podcast of Vaughan Williams’ short opera, Riders to the Sea, has taken 159,000 hits – more than the total number of people who have seen or heard the work over half a century. ENO’s strategy, developed with the Sky subscription channel, is aimed to draw web browsers and film buffs into the house. Sky, as well as airing opera, pays for short related films by such screen icons as Werner Herzog.

After two decades of neglect by public broadcasting, opera is coming alive again on satellite and on-line. ‘What we have done with Sky has caught the BBC napping and made it look very old-fashioned,’ says John Berry, ENO’s artistic director.

But that is just one bud on a flowering tree. Other companies are putting opera into your local multiplex, your laptop and your online service provider. In the last century, all an opera house had to do was find big singers for two-dozen perennials, plus the occasional novelty. In 2009, with audiences getting older and newcomers hard to find, opera is working its way into other outlets.

New York’s Metropolitan Opera was first off the blocks, launching live or as-live relays of its shows into cinemas across the US and Europe. The fanfares were thunderous, the returns less so. Last month the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb, announcing a collapse in donations and investments, scrapped four productions and slashed costs. My source on the Met board intimates that one of the chief drains on its finances was the $60 million spent on filming operas in high definition and putting them in movie houses.

Revenue is negligible. US cinema owners keep 60 percent of ticket sales and another 25 percent goes on distribution and marketing. Gelb wanted global footprint and a young audience. What he got is a hole bigger than the annual budget of America’s next largest opera house.

There is no evidence so far that taking opera to the movies creates new footfall at the opera house, and that is not for want of trying. Covent Garden entered the movie business two years ago, buying a DVD label Opus Arte for £5.7 million and entering art-house cinemas. It is proceeding more circumspectly than the Met. The Royal Opera House has supplied ten opera and ballet performances for screening in 146 UK and continental cinemas, reaching 34,000 paying customers – the equivalent of 17 full houses at the opera. Another ten have shown in North America, where half the uptake is Canadian.

Under the ROH/Opus Arte scheme, cinema owners can choose from a broad menu rather than taking a current show. Still to come this season are Manon, Tales of Beatrix Potter and Carmen. ROH officials have been alarmed to see fewer than a hundred people at screenings, but cinema owners say that is good daytime business. ‘It’s a work in progress,’ says one insider, but the ROH is guaranteed an income by one cinema chain and an additional stream from DVD sales.

Whether it brings young cinemagoes into the opera house, which is also the objective of Glyndebourne’s big-screen project, remains to be seen. The biggest result so far has been for a free live webcast of the ROH Don Giovanni. It drew 38,014 viewers, more than its entire cinema attendance to date.

There are risks, however, in getting too close to the screen. In the second half of the first act of ENO’s Boheme last week, the moment Mimi walks into Rodolfo’s garret and he lights her candle and hope in her heart, the stage went dim, and the two faces were in shadow for the rest of the scene. ‘Must be something to do with the television,’ said my companion, and indeed it was.

The opening night of Jonathan Miller’s production was going out live on Sky Arts and even livelier on Sky Arts2 which had cameras were rolling backstage, just as in major sportscasts. It was the first time an opera house had let its workings be seen during a performance and, despite qualms, the venture was judged an innovative triumph.

Members of the chorus and orchestra were delighted to receive I-c-u texts from loved ones as they came backstage and members of the management were intrigued to learn, from an on-air interview with Sky presenter Penny Smith, that their wardrobe supervisor used to be a pub manager. The crowning image, for insiders and home viewers alike, was the sight of six stagehands perched high above the proscenium, scattering paper snowflakes on the tragic lovers down below. ‘Ah, so that’s how it’s done,’ everyone exclaimed.

‘Opera is just perfect for this treatment,’ declares John Berry. ‘It shows the company in a very transparent way. With the kind of multimedia artists and film directors who will be working here in the next few years, we are going all out for open access and experiment. The next stage is inter-activity – getting the audience at home to be more involved.’

He is on the right track. That is surely how opera has to compete with hundreds of channels and millions of weblogs to trap the eye of zappers and browsers, somewhere out there. What is must not do is lose sight of the real-life viewer - one of the 3,000, for instance, who bought a first-night ticket to Boheme and struggled out in gelid snow, only to find themselves peering into thick gloom. Both as they fall in love in act one and as they fall out in act three, Mimi and Rodolfo lost voltage on stage.

John Berry admits that he cut the lights out of deference to television. ‘Usually on TV,’ he tells me, ‘it’s far too bright and you see all the makeup. I made a calculated decision with the team to downplay makeup and lights – make it less stagey. When Mimi enters for the first time, it looks brilliant on TV but rather shaded in parts of the house. I accept that.’

Berry’s decision, which earned the show a muted reception and lukewarm reviews, is a classic example of the conundrum faced by opera houses as they get to grips with the challenge of new media and a virtual audience. ENO’s bullishness will soon fade if it produces many more twenty-watt Bohemes and no amount of snow chuckers in the flies will satisfy a paying audience whose experience is diminished by TV. Similarly, the Met’s customers in New York won’t be pleased to discover that an over-ambitious movie plan has left their season four shows short of a full house.

Opera, as it wrestles with new media, needs to strike a balance between the fastidious expectations of devoted followers and the fickle demands of a screen industry with an attention span of two point five seconds. That balance went askew last week on the first night of Boheme. ENO won’t make the same mistake twice, but it is sailing in uncharted waters and it needs to watch out for storms. The age of virtual opera has dawned, but the light of reason has yet to shine with any consistency.


Five must-have operas on DVD:

1 Donizetti, La Fille di Regiment (Virgin) Natalie Dessay driving all before her at the ROH

2 Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Opus Arte) The Netherlands Opera production, conductor Mariss Jansons

3 Berlioz Les Troyens (ArtHaus) From Salzburg, with doomed love. Deborah Polaski is Dido.

4 Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Opus Arte) The riveting Glyndebourne show, with Nina Stemme

5 Birtwistle: The Minotaur (Opus Arte) New opera, unseen outside the ROH, John Tomlinson is the raging bull

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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