14 April 2016 at 6.01pm | 36 Comments
The future of opera, and the role of technology within it, is a question that for some time has been at the forefront of my mind, both as a PhD researcher and an opera lover. Presently, a whole generation of potential opera fans are coming of age in a time where world-class productions are relayed live to thousands of cinema screens across continental divides.
The potential of live cinema broadcasts of opera and ballet – which bring the art forms to life via 21st-century technology from companies including the Royal Opera House and the Metropolitan Opera – is awesome. In the space of just a few years, the Royal Opera House’s annual ‘virtual audience’ already outstrips its auditorium attendance.
However, opera cinema audiences in particular are mostly made up of seasoned veterans, the kinds of folk who know their Traviatas from their Toscas. The question remains: can ‘opera cinema’ have any special appeal for new audiences?
Why, you might ask, would anyone with a budding interest in opera pass up the opportunity to watch their first production on the stage? What does the popcorn-munching mundanity of the multiplex have to offer over the presence of live performers working their magic under the proscenium arch?
That is what I set out to discover last year. As part of a preliminary experiment for my ongoing PhD project, I invited 20 members of the public (of mixed ages, genders and backgrounds) to lose their operatic virginities – for science.
My subjects watched John Fulljames’s Royal Opera production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in the Covent Garden auditorium and a cinema of their choosing. I then had them compare their experiences, specifying what they liked and disliked about both settings.
There are two reasons that my research focuses on opera virgins. Firstly, the whole discourse around opera in cinemas is based on (usually negative) comparison with the stage. Opera-savvy audiences naturally compare what they see with what they already know.
The result is that we don’t give much thought to the value of opera cinema as a cultural experience in its own right. A pity, as there are many things that opera cinema can do that staged opera cannot. For instance, the visual language of cinema provides an unparalleled level of intimacy and detail. For the same ticket price, every member of the opera cinema audience enjoys privileged access to the stage action.
Secondly, I wanted to ascertain whether certain aspects of opera cinema (such as the perception of greater ‘accessibility’, familiarity and comfort) would resonate with my opera virgins, perhaps fostering increased enthusiasm for attending a staged production.
Ultimately my subjects divided themselves into three discrete groups. The first (whom I dubbed ‘new purists’) fell immediately head-over-heels in love with opera, but insisted that it belonged on the stage. As one respondent put it: ‘until you’ve seen an opera in an opera house, you haven’t seen an opera’.
The second group was made up of people for whom opera was both aesthetically and culturally intimidating: old-fashioned, ‘stuffy’ and esoteric – in short, not for them.
Finally, a significant minority of ‘opera cinephiles’ seemed genuinely to prefer opera in the cinema. This was partly for the reasons I anticipated (increased comfort, enhanced legibility of the drama and so on). What I hadn’t banked on was a certain sense of ‘philanthropic’ value, wherein subjects praised the Royal Opera House for making its productions more readily available.
I’m currently in the process of expanding my research outside of London, introducing Hereford and Hertfordshire audiences to the operatic world via live-streaming. My initial findings suggest that opera cinema at the very least has the potential to introduce successfully newcomers to the form, in addition to engaging existing opera audiences on its own merits.
We’re not there yet, but given the right nudge it is not inconceivable that the silver screen might become the popular point of entry for the opera-curious.
The Royal Opera House and King’s College London are partnering to research opera in cinemas.
Find out more about the Royal Opera House’s Live Cinema Season.
What do you think of opera in cinema? Let us know in the comments below.