A night at the opera cinema

opera cinema.JPG

By Joseph Attard

Back in 2006, the Metropolitan Opera’s then-General Manager, Peter Gelb, came up with the idea of wooing hip, young, arts audiences (“people in their forties” ‒ his words) by simulcasting the Met’s performances via satellite to cinemas and television screens across the globe. The Royal Opera House followed suit in 2008, simulcasting Francesca Zambello’s production of Don Giovanni. Today, live operatic event cinema (or ‘opera cinema’, to use my coinage) reaches a larger audience than the so-called real thing. The Royal Opera alone simulcasts its productions to 35 territories, with millions of opera fans enjoying beloved productions on the silver screen ‒ in real-time ‒ and busting box-office records in the process.

While its commercial value has been proven, many questions linger over opera cinema: can it bring newcomers to the stage? Is it a new art form or just a parasitical shadow of stage performance? Does cinema simulcasting represent a democratisation of elite culture? For the past three years, I have made these issues my object of study, seeking to determine: what is opera cinema?

Coming from a Film and Media Studies background, I am fascinated by opera cinema. It is highly instructive about trends in contemporary media cultures, which are increasingly networked, hybridised and participatory. These events are far more than a simple transmission. Opera cinema combines live performance, cinema and digital communication to unique effect, with celebrity hosts (including Stephen Fry, Richard E. Grant and Gok Wan) conducting talking-head interviews with the stars between acts, alongside short, behind-the-scenes documentaries. These little extras bring an extra frisson to the occasion, as do theatrical embellishments to the cinema space like the provision of physical programmes and (occasionally) special refreshments like champagne.

I was also interested in the political dimension surrounding this phenomenon. Opera cinema has experienced some pushback from the operatic community, who have rather fixed ideas about what constitutes ‘proper’ opera. Speight Jenkins, former General Manager for the Seattle Opera gave the following, withering assessment: “opera takes place in a room with energy moving back and forth between the performers and the audience and this is not it.” Critic Alexandra Coghlan is in agreement, arguing in the Independent that arias simply “fall flat” at the multiplex: “Opera broadcasts are to live opera as Walt Disney’s original fantasy of Epcot was to America; everything might be visually tidier, more convenient, more heightened in close-up, but it’s also hollow – a cartoonish reality.”

On the academic side, the ruling paradigm in dramaturgical research was laid out in 1993 by Peggy Phelan, who defined performance as a thing which happens ‘in the moment’: “Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance”. The view is reiterated by Sam Abel with specific regard to opera, who goes further in arguing that the “the whirlwind of high-technology” puts audiences in perpetual danger of “forgetting the appeal of traditional non-mediated performance…The more sensually involving technology becomes, the greater this threat looms.”

Any democratising potential possessed by opera cinema came seriously into question in 2014, when the Guildhall, in collaboration with the English Touring Opera published research implying that, far from bringing new audiences to the art form, opera cinema cannibalises existing audiences ‒ stealing them from the stage. Undeniably, cinema simulcasting does not currently cater to newcomers ‒ indeed, internal research from the Royal Opera House suggests that cinema attendees constitute, on average, an older and more experienced cross-section of its stage audience.

In May of last year, I released a short video (embedded below) in which I discussed these issues, and introduced my own research, which involved recruiting novice respondents (‘opera virgins’) to watch their first ever performance via simulcast and in the Covent Garden auditorium. I chose to focus on newcomers due to my belief that they would be less inclined to simply make comparison to the ‘original’ stage experience, and view opera cinema with fresh eyes. Since then, I have organised viewings of four operas (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Boris Godunov, Lucia di Lammermoor and Werther) for 80 virgin subjects, at six cinemas, in three separate locations (London, Hertfordshire and Hereford). What did I discover?

Most of my respondents regarded staged opera as a more esteemed and valuable cultural experience than opera cinema. However, all concluded that simulcasting is more valuable than conventional, pre-recorded cinema, which they reflexively associated with the intellectual immaturity and disposable dross of ‘mass culture’. There was also diversity of opinion amongst my subjects about what constitutes a ‘live’ experience. For some, nothing less than physical co-presence was sufficient, while others were more flexible.

Respondents highlighted opera cinema’s accessibility, on multiple counts. Aside from the prosaic matter of convenience and inexpensiveness relative to staged opera, many praised the double-directed action for enhancing the legibility of the drama. In an art form known for cross-dressing, double-crossing and bizarre plot contrivances, the language of cinema provided a helpful crutch to new inductees.

Moreover, many subjects appreciated the cinema as a relaxed and familiar exhibition content, in which etiquette and behavioural codes were less stringent than the opera house. This did not prevent some subjects for from enacting ritual behavioural codes associated with theatrical attendance (like dressing up in their finery) to ‘elevate’ the experience.  Finally, several subjects expressed a sense of collective participation, whether at the level of the auditorium audience depicted on screen, or the global audience evident through social media chatter. Some even attested to a degree of ‘national pride’ at seeing praise for London’s Royal Opera beamed in from Portugal and Canada.

Opera cinema is still very much attached to the opera house: being regarded as ancillary even by novice subjects. However, in my view, opera companies have basically created a new art form by accident, one that has a lot of potential, is still maturing, and complicates a lot of academic wisdom about what it means to attend a ‘live performance.’ I have also seen limited evidence to support accusations of cannibalisation. Tory cuts to arts budgets are more to blame for a reduced arts ecology than simulcasting.

The growing academic interest around this subject was reflected by a symposium I held at King’s College London in July, which brought together practitioners, culture sector representatives and scholars to productively discuss the intellectual and artistic implications of this fascinating new medium. I am also looking forward to the publication of a portion of my findings in the first ever edited compendium on live and event cinema, due in December.

From phonograph recordings of Caruso in the 1910s, to live radio and television broadcasts, to the raft of studio operas pumped out by the BBC during the post-war consensus, technology has only ever had a positive effect on opera in terms of touching more and more socio-economically diverse hearts. It is still early days for this new phenomenon, but I can well imagine a future wherein we no longer talk about a night at the opera, at the cinema; but a night at the opera cinema.

Watch a video about Joseph Attard’s research here:

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