/Cinemas and live streams: Is this the death of the opera house?
Otello, Royal Opera House, with Jonas Kaufmann

Cinemas and live streams: Is this the death of the opera house?

This year BP Big Screens will be showing The Dream / Symphonic Variations / Marguerite and Armand on 7 June, Verdi’s La traviata on 4 July and Puccini’s Turandot on 14 July. Hundreds of spectators can watch opera for free in the open at various venues throughout the UK including Trafalgar Square, Aberdeen, York and Newcastle. And with Jonas Kaufmann’s lead role as Otello being live streamed to cinemas from the Covent Garden on Wednesday 28th June (encore 2nd July), it may be a good time to rethink the value (or disvalue) of broadcasting opera on the silver screen, and whether or not it can develop new opera audiences.

Here is an article I wrote back in September 2015, which I didn’t get round to publishing online. (If you want my bibliography or list of references, I’d gladly share them with you.) I’m playing a bit of devil’s advocate with my suggestions, but I hope it gives readers an idea of the ongoing debate on whether it is an effective way of developing new audiences for a genre that is suffering from smaller audience numbers and losing confidence, particularly in the UK, due to cuts to their arts aid in a digital era where “being there” isn’t as imperative as it used to be.

Special thanks to Gate Picturehouse, the Royal Opera House and BBC Proms for offering information promptly, including Tom Nelson and Miranda Keys for taking time out of their busy schedules to share their thoughts and experiences of live broadcast.

Cinemas and live streams: Is this the death of the opera house?

Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Glyndebourne Festival 2015
Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Glyndebourne screening: Festival 2015

Live broadcasts of opera may be making a killing at the box office, but it won’t replace a night at the opera. As live broadcasts of opera reach their tenth year (as of 2015) in cinemas, I shall delve into the effects this has had on the opera industry and its audience numbers.

Ask an operagoer what it is about opera they like most and they will probably rank the experience of being there at the opera house high on their list. London’s regal Covent Garden, the luxuriant architecture of Opéra Garnier in Paris and the gargantuan 3,000 seater Metropolitan Opera are just a few examples of the grand and ornate aura that emulates from an opera house.

Between 2013 and 2014, 1.5m people visited the Royal Opera House (ROH); it’s a figure they hold dear and hope to exceed, exponentially, each year. But, it should come as no surprise that not everyone has had the chance to visit an opera house. In the UK, that accounts for a large cohort of deprived audiences. The last official survey conducted by the Arts Council of England (ACE) for opera was back in 2011-12. They found that only 7% of adults (from a London sample of 1,400) attended operas and operettas from which one can only conclude that the other thousands, from last year’s Covent Garden figures, were foreign spectators. Though this number is small it is reasonable to assume that opera – a vintage of high art that had been celebrated since the 17th century in Europe – is a niche and fragile art form that has a smaller following of passionate operagoers, compared to, say, theatre audiences. Though too often it seems like a members-only club. Opera has to find ways to widen their clientele without alienating everyone – ‘all’ audiences.

Its regional inaccessibility is another reason why many haven’t managed to see an opera yet. To combat this – for audiences based further away from the nearest opera house – opera companies have taken to the silver screen following the footsteps of the Met that has under 2.5 million audiences who watch their screenings from 66 countries in 2000 cinemas.

The Met HD production of The Magic Flute, 2016

Before brushing live broadcasts aside, let’s survey what live cinema opera could potentially offer. For the uninitiated, live opera broadcasts (or simulcasts as they are otherwise known) are screenings of operas transmitted by satellite to local cinemas where the audience pay a fraction of the price to see operas broadcasted live from the stage in the comfort of their local cinema.

Friends at Glyndebourne, Covent Garden and, in the last two years, the English National Opera (ENO) have caught up with the digital frenzy by providing their own live relay series which, put together, are doing reasonably well, in some respects, by getting through to international audiences, nudging on thousands every year, though still far behind, and unfit to fill the shoes of the Met.

It all began with the general manager of the Met Peter Gelb who engineered a way for audiences to watch the Met’s productions live through cinema and ever since its introduction in December 2006 they have continued to excel creatively having screened to more audiences than any other opera company – they nailed the international box office. It is no wonder that Gelb’s digital innovation won the Met an Emmy in 2009. Exclusive backstage footage and interviews with the cast and directors are part of the goody bag packaging of live cinema opera, albeit rather distracting. Though they may seem like real insight into the workings of a production, one loses track of where they are in the opera and it disrupts the flow of the screening.

Gelb admits that the inspiration behind the Live in HD series was the “gladiatorial aspect” one gets from sports events. “It’s the performing arts’ equivalent of what sports teams do, to keep the bond strong between teams and their fan base.” I suppose it isn’t hard to see where Gelb realised this duality, yet my hunch is that opera and, say, football are two entirely different things. Has Gelb leapt ahead without noticing what he is risking for opera’s rich culture? Promoting soundtracks for Hollywood movie Titanic, as the Head of Sony Classic may have worked before but deploying opera to thousands of cinemas to feed the masses is a different ball game altogether.

Scepticism over live broadcasts of the arts isn’t new. London’s theatre land had relished from the successes of National Theatre’s NT Live series with the Globe following suit (short of the “liveness’ aspect) yet British playwright, Sir Alan Ayckbourn, told the BBC of his concerns when NT Live broadcasted his play A Small Family Business in 2014. “One’s fear, which maybe groundless, is that eventually we and our equivalent theatres will stop doing plays and they’ll all be streamed live from these centres of excellence.” Could this be the same fate for major houses and opera companies? Broadcasts of opera may have made a killing at the box office, opera companies and major houses are not. Some of them have failed.

One major casualty was the finger pointing at ENO’s previous artistic director John Berry who stepped down in July (2015), over mishandling the Coliseum’s bankbooks for more than a decade and the internal conflicts with committee members, who resigned before him. The ACE were under attack for reducing the ENO’s annual grants to £12.4m (£5 million less than previously), though they also reduced Covent Garden’s budget ever so slightly by £1 million.

The ACE’s confidence in its capital’s opera houses wears thin. Whether or not taxpayers give two hoots about the reduction in grants offered to the opera companies, some opera lovers despair over the future of what opera could become. To understand what Ayckbourn, and those who agree with him, feel about live broadcasts and the detriment it could cause for live theatre, one needs to look at the history of the BBC Proms. As the BBC Proms season has just ended for 2015, the BBC undergo interesting times negotiating their Royal Charter next year (which every taxpayer will be paying for). The Proms, that has been termed a national treasure and a “calendar fixture”, was founded by the earnest intentions of Sir Henry Wood and Robert Newman back in 1895, breaking social barriers and making classical music available for all – no matter what background or political view.

The Proms was revolutionised in 1927 when it was taken over by the BBC and UK audiences could listen to concerts live on radio; listening increased from 20% to 71% by 1938. The BBC also broadcasted their concerts live on television, which they continue to do today (three times per week on BBC4), however, new classical music audiences do not develop this way – accessibility over broadcast doesn’t, in fact, increase audience size as one would assume.

Covent Garden’s Creative Producer, Tom Nelson, whose previous role was at the BBC Proms, revealed to me, “I would be wary about saying the broadcast element brings in new audiences but certainly the fact that every Prom is broadcast live on radio is a powerful message and does increase the amount of people who listen to Radio 3 over summer. I found that when I was there, once the Proms finished the audience go away again.” The BBC are also mindful that broadcasts of the Proms do not draw in enough audiences for them to justify giving away free air time slots from their television schedule.

The research on live broadcasts of opera doesn’t look entirely convincing either. Although the Met is pulling in roughly 2.5 million people Stephan van Eeden’s research, The Impact of The Met: Live in HD on Local Opera Attendance, conducted for the University British Columbia, tells another story. In short, the research found that after carrying out surveys in the Manhattan area with more than 187 participants, after seeing a Live in HD screening as well as a professional and amateur production, “Live in HD does not draw away the established audience from attending live opera. The program does not generate more live opera attendance nor does it bring new audiences into local opera”.

Damiano Michieletto's Guillaume Tell (June 2015)
Damiano Michieletto’s Guillaume Tell (June 2015)

Attempting to understand the economic viability and business virtue of live broadcasts, English Touring Opera (ETO) conducted a similar survey with 13 cinemas in the UK and 234 audience members that revealed 85% of participants expressed no need to see an opera anymore than before seeing a live broadcast. ETO’s general director James Conway arrives at the knowledge that it is ludicrous and “wishful thinking” that new audiences could suddenly emerge after seeing live broadcasts. Some participants went so far as to suggest that live broadcast was “a new art form”, while others considered that idea a shallow delusion.

Certain opera companies are fully clued up on what they are risking by pursing live broadcasts, given the deep concern over what some argue as ‘dwindling’ audience numbers. Some operagoers that previously sought the authentic opera experience are changing their mind and one may have to blame live broadcasts’ enticing bargain tickets; the ROH’s live relay tickets are as cheap as £15 while the Met is double that, yet still affordable compared to golden opera house tickets.

Covent Garden’s Enterprises’ managing director, Alastair Roberts told online publication, Bachtrack, “[The ROH] has planned an ambitious season of broadcasting 11 of its opera and ballet productions meaning that for the first time – cinema attendance will outstrip audience attendance in Covent Garden itself.” It also stirs controversy with local competition and touring companies, such as Opera North and Welsh National Opera, who travel far and wide, perpetually filling seats with extraordinary productions. Live broadcast may chip away at their value, or does it?

The audience numbers released from Gate Picturehouse in Notting Hill also indicate that profits made at the cinema are often hit and miss and don’t necessarily guarantee a sold out screening each and every time. The Met’s Cavalleria Rusticana/ Pagliacci did exceedingly well, short of three seats but turned out to be a foolproof event while the ROH pulled in 172 customers for John Copley’s last showing of his production of La Bohème. Yet they didn’t do so well with their live relay of Guillaume Tell, which filled only 91 seats, though the quandaries surrounding a gratuitous rape scene may have been the culprit behind these marginal figures.
Live broadcast is a serious business that costs millions. The nuts and bolts of the operation demand expensive technology as well as highly qualified, technical artists and cameramen. This puts other opera companies in a tight spot, having to compete with the stakes that the Met are willing to gamble. Talk of craftsmanship leads to audience’s neglect of the sound and acoustic quality of London’s honoured concert halls, including opera houses that classical music aficionados often praise. Wasn’t it conductor Simon Rattle, the music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, who pleaded for a new world-class concert hall for London?

When I asked Nelson about what conductors thought about cinema’s surround sound superseding their interpretation of the music he said, “I think that conductors would say that there is nothing that beats being in the theatre itself. [However] I don’t think conductors can ever take issue other than to say that it is a different experience. I guess this is part of why some conductors say spectators are not getting what I’m hearing because there’s another person in the chain. So a lot of conductors will work with balancing the sound with whoever they trust who can replicate the sound of the orchestra.” But let’s be clear. To replicate sound is to not experience the same sound produced being in the same room as the orchestra.

Met Opera's Live in HD 2016-17 Programme
Met Opera’s Live in HD 2016-17 Programme

International soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who has been in the opera business since the Seventies, is not for live broadcasts for similar reasons associated with sound who said, ‘it creates homogenised-sounding singing. It all sounds the same.” Not only is the authority of brilliant conductors questioned but so are the distinguished stage directors who lose autonomy overseeing the opera. Camera director, Jonathan Haswell told Opera Magazine, “[stage director] David McVicars – utterly embrace what I’m doing, and will stage things with an awareness of how it’s going to look on the screen.” Shall directors seek consultation and approval from camera directors rather than their own creative faculties as they did previously? And as much as it may seem like a blessing to focus in on Jonas Kaufmann’s face up-close at the cinema, audiences are effectively watching angles and shots already decided for them. Audiences lose agency – not having the freedom to pan their eyes across the stage and risk missing out on other stage details purposefully curated by the stage director, which leads me onto another debate in opera.

Over the course of opera’s history, the physical appearance of the opera singer has been a contentious issue. Live broadcasts make singers uneasy about how they look on screen as Haswell confided, “I always used to assume that the singers took no regard of what we do but now I realise that increasingly it really matters to them. But if you’re singing to 3,000 people and I’m in so close on them, it’s simply not fair. And if you, the viewer, see sweat, spit, or the edge of the wig, that’s also going to detract from your engagement.” When I asked Australian soprano Miranda Keys, who sung in last year’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier which was live streamed on the Telegraph website, whether she worried about viewers seeing close-up shots of her, she told me, “Honestly yes. These days, women have self-esteem issues, seeing perfection staring at us from our TV, cinema screen or magazines. Live TV means no photoshop and no filter. I didn’t think that I needed to be a super model doing this job, but I learnt (the hard way – constant weight criticism) that it matters more than it ever has.” Though this issue affects opera in a broad sense, it is exacerbated by live broadcasts – in lieu of vocal abilities, singers are cast by their looks. This type of trepidation is uninspiring for new talent and could warn off anyone considering a career in opera.

Another thing to consider is the experience of opera changing as early as people have recorded music. The onset of gramophones, television, silent movies, cassette players, LPs and cinema films, directed artistically by the likes of Zeffirelli and Woolcock, demonstrate how much has transformed through time yet none of these mediums encapsulate the same rich experience that the opera house gives to an audience. The survival of the DVD and Blue-ray is also at stake now that the internet can stream live opera from websites (such as Medici.TV and Opera Platform).

Major houses including the Met, Glyndebourne and ROH have caught onto the trend. The ENO are rather late to the game which alludes to “market saturation” for other opera companies that may fall behind. Sitting outside to have a picnic in the green was formerly restricted to Glyndebourne. Now one can sit outside Lincoln Square in New York or Trafalgar Square to see the Met or the Covent Garden’s operas for free. Nelson reiterated the significant relationship Covent Garden hope to retain with BP who champion their Big Screen programme. “BP Big Screen is an important project for us and our relationship with BP is important. They are committed to doing things that reach a lot of people in the UK.” And it can’t be helped that with the proliferation of commodity culture: smart phones and social media, people can record and technically steal performer’s intellectually property, by copying and uploading them online on web platforms such as YouTube, which raises some fundamental piracy issues.
The opera scene has changed immensely from how it was ten years ago. Perhaps it is not all doom and gloom and opera is still responding to the advancement of technology, but what about the UK’s precious opera houses? Opera companies are no longer looking at what their local neighbours are doing but the competition abroad – the world’s opera houses. With the ACE taking away subsidies from the capital’s opera houses, it’s causing a ripple that has shaken the opera world. The ENO need a treasury subsidy of £70 per ticket sold yet to take their subsidy away and audiences are looking at paying £300. Opera companies may have thought live broadcasts were the answer to bringing in alienated audiences and drawing them in through cinema but the research proves otherwise.

Is it possible that opera houses can lose their appeal if audiences rely solely on cinema broadcasts? Will opera houses become deserted centres of excellence in years to come, especially during a time where the excitement of ‘being there’ is slowing becoming defunct? For geographic purposes, live broadcast is beneficial yet cinema operagoing should not become a habit.

It’s fair to say the opera house is the paragon of what opera culture truly is. The formalities of a night at the opera are not in place at the cinema. For one thing, operagoers do not drink prosecco with popcorn; that’s what one does in a cinema. I shall end with a thought: Can you imagine watching Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the cinema? I think you get my point.