Performance notes

Broadcasting opera shows live into cinemas is transforming the reach of the world's great opera houses. But opera will always be best savoured live
February 28, 2009

Just before Christmas, along with about 400 other London-based fans (and at the urging of this magazine's editor), I went on the operatic trip of a lifetime to New York's Metropolitan Opera.

To be strictly accurate, it was the Met that came to us. Nevertheless, for nearly four hours—and at a fraction of the cost and effort of winging our way to the Lincoln Centre in New York—the group of people gathered in London's Barbican cinema was transported to Manhattan for a live performance of Massenet's orientalist blockbuster Thaïs, with the lustrous Renée Fleming in the title role.

I had thought the experience would be like the television opera relays that the BBC tends to schedule during the Christmas holidays—only bigger. But the difference between watching an opera on the television and on the cinema screen is one not only of size, but also of quality.

In the first place, opera in the cinema is in-your-face. With the lights down and the doors closed, there are none of the visual or aural distractions that inevitably accompany watching opera on television in a well-lit room in the average family home. No one comes in asking what is for dinner, or whether they can watch the football instead. Inevitably, in the cinema setting, you concentrate more.

The transmission is in high definition. This isn't an unmixed blessing, but it certainly beats the quality of any television picture I'm used to. The sound is also immeasurably better projected than anything you get with a television. Modern cinemas have industrial level quadraphonic sound systems, so that immediacy, detail and volume are all excellent.

And there is a genuine sense of being in an audience at a performance. It's not just that the show is taking place live—these performances are the Met's Saturday matinees, which have long been broadcast around the world on radio. It's that, when you take your seat, the screen is showing the auditorium in New York gradually filling up, with the familiar pre-performance noises of the orchestra tuning up and the audience settling in. For these reasons, and because you have made a choice to be in the cinema, you feel part of the proceedings in a way that you cannot in front of the television. I don't think anyone dressed up for the Barbican showing and I hope they never do. But, rightly, some people applauded during the performance—just as they were doing in New York.

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Broadcast performances also have to observe the theatre's pauses and intervals—which can be long and frequent at the Met—and here the relay attempts to offer added value. In Thaïs we got to see the stage set being changed while the curtain was down, with a stage manager waving our cameraman out of his way and even, I think, swearing at him. We also had Plácido Domingo, no less, interviewing Fleming—pictured in the production, right—as she came off stage (imagine how risky that would be with a more temperamental artist like Maria Callas!) along with pre-recorded features about the backstage operation at the Met.

You certainly get a lot for your £25. But there are disadvantages. One of these is the backstage stuff, which can subvert both the magic of the theatrical experience as well as the pure ideal of the art form itself. High definition close-ups are also an uncertain asset, since not all singers look at their best when singing—and because, well, the close-up appearance of some singers hampers the suspension of belief that opera always demands. That's not a charge I would level against Fleming or Thomas Hampson in this production, although from her interview it was clear that Fleming is aware of the risk.

Overall, though, what's not to welcome in this widening of global access to top-quality opera? Not a lot. These Met relays go to 30 countries (apparently there are Japanese fans willing to turn out at 2am for their showing)—and to 51 outlets from Aberdeen to Exeter in this country alone. And how many of those gathering for one of these broadcasts will ever get to go to any kind of opera at all, let alone to a hot ticket Renée Fleming night at the Met?

Those who berate opera houses for not being accessible should give due credit to these efforts. Yet there is also a serious downside to this expanded global access. Only a handful of opera houses have the branding and the clout to get their work relayed in this way (though Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre has recently announced it intends to get in on the act too). The Met, under the ex-Sony Classical boss Peter Gelb, is the market leader. Covent Garden, under the former BBC executive Tony Hall, has a big presence in cinemas in Britain, as well as a few in Germany and the Netherlands. La Scala's opening night in December was internationally available too, as part of a package involving a number of Italian houses.

None of these houses is exactly a byword for radical production values, while the Met in particular is a bastion of the star-singer system. How will audiences in Aberdeen get to see contemporary works, more innovative productions, or singers who are not yet stars? If you can nip out to the cinema in Exeter to see Fleming in New York, will you also travel to Plymouth to see Welsh National Opera live on tour? Opera on the big screen is a tremendous spectacle. But a living art form will always be best savoured live.