Opera and technology

Tom Sutcliffe asks whether cinema showings of operas are really increasing their popularity and accessibility

Operatic institutions like the New York Met, Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House are now making a big fuss about cinema transmissions of their work – so-called live and in high definition. There’s even an article by the Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in the current Glyndebourne Festival programme about the ‘generational divide between digital natives and the rest’ – meaning between those under 35, and those who are edging closer to final disposal.

Last year the Guardian’s website started ‘streaming’ opera performances from the Sussex festival. So what does this mean? Is opera finally acquiring the ability to be cheap, popular and accessible?

A profitable enterprise

For years now there have been simultaneous telecasts to giant screens on the Maximilianplatz in Munich or in the Piazza at Covent Garden of what the audience is seeing in the opera house. Companies that get a load of subsidy from taxpayers but charge vast prices for their seats are eager to appear available. (Glyndebourne on tour receives £1.5 million subsidy from Arts Council England and makes a ‘loss’; but there are various significant benefits to the festival from the tour.)

Cinema transmissions, whether simultaneous or ‘encore’ (as the re-run of the Met Ring is called), are potentially more profitable for companies like the Met than just publishing a DVD, whether on your own label as Glyndebourne now does, or on a major commercial label. It seems the Met may have made over £7 million from cinema ticket sales – though it may also have reduced the demand for tickets in New York where the Met is the only truly full-time opera company in the whole USA (the others function for six months of the year or less).

Apparently American Wagner fans who normally have to travel to New York for their Wagner are either happy with their cinema experience of the work, or don’t think from what they have seen on the screen that it is worth the expensive trip and accommodation.

Television and cinema

Tony Hall who is boss of the Royal Opera House was formerly a BBC man, so it is no surprise that broadcast mechanical exploitation of the product is right up his street. Forty years ago one could see West End productions of plays on television in one’s living room. Because the telly is so profitable, the market has found many cheaper ways of keeping people glued to their seats. The BBC used to record operas just for television: its Billy Budd in the Seventies was thought superb. Britten’s Owen Wingrave was written in 1971 for the BBC though it is not a path that has led anywhere.

John Berry, artistic director of English National Opera, in an interview with The Stage questioned whether the whole HD experience in cinemas created new audiences for opera at all. I know well that, as with performances transmitted from the National Theatre which can be seen anywhere in the world, there are people out there who cannot get to any theatre in English where they live who are delighted to get their fix in a cinema – on a big screen that shows more than you might see on the box at home. But looking around me at the Brixton Ritzy where fewer than 30 of us were watching the first two operas

of the Met Ring, or even at the York City Screen where there were more like 50 the weekend of General Synod, the average age was over 60 and my guess would have been that most of us were opera aficionados.

Superb performance

I found the Met Ring excellent if what one wanted was to listen to amplified voices. In purely vocal terms this was a superb performance with a cast about as good as the world currently provides. Deborah Voigt, if only she did not smile so often, really is the goods as Brünnhilde; Jonas Kaufmann was a marvellously surly yet heroic Siegmund; Eva-Maria Westbroek was a sweetly involving Sieglinde; Bryn Terfel was at his very best as the quizzical fatalistic Wanderer in Siegfried; Jay Hunter Morris stepping into his role suddenly was a classically natural boyish Siegfried; Eric Owens could scarcely be a finer schwarz Alberich, indignant at the injustices he had suffered yet deserving respect; and Patricia Bardon was a fabulous below the radar Erda.

Robert Lepage’s staging was machine-bound in a disappointing and not very expressive way, but it improved as it went on so that the Gotterdämmerung seemed like a story very well told. Even more importantly, the conducting of Fabio Luisa, taking over half way through when James Levine fell sick, was wonderfully modest and attentive both to the miracle of Wagner’s soundworld and to the needs of the drama and text.

What a superb score the last of the Ring operas is: the characterization and the fulfilment of Wagner’s conception of how the tragedy works out were both masterly in their naive but satisfying way. ND