Is Opera Eating Itself?

Another great read by Nick Breckenfield! Cover photo of American soprano Renée Fleming by David Shankbone

The great American soprano Renée Fleming has been in London for a series devoted to her at the Barbican Centre. What I found particularly interesting were her comments in an interview with Rupert Christiansen in London’s Daily Telegraph (2 February 2016).

Announcing her withdrawal from the world’s main opera stages with her Marschellin in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier next season at both the Met and Covent Garden, Renée Fleming expressed concerns about the success of live cinema relays of operas which may be having a detrimental effect on audiences actual going to see the opera in the opera house. If so (and I’m not sure that the same trend has been experienced at Covent Garden), then it would be a curious case of opera being a victim of its own success in its rather nifty technological solution to broadening the appeal of the art form: beaming it live into a cinema near you.

I’ve seen opera and ballet in the cinema (as well as plays) and they offer a view of the work that you simply can’t get in the theatre. Even if you can afford the stalls, there’s still the expanse of the orchestra pit between you and the singers, so that the close ups on the cinema screen (and later on DVD) really do get you closer to the action. What – in the theatre – may look like generalised movements become pin-sharp emotions in HD. I think these two types of enjoying opera complement each other, and I know people who have tickets for the Royal Opera House who also go to see the cinema screening.

However, if audiences are opting more for cinema screenings than buying tickets (though not necessarily more expensive tickets) for the ‘real, live experience’ then you could get into a vicious circle – and how would that end? Opera filmed in an empty studio opera, with no live audience, being beamed around the world? That would make the art form completely moribund. I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that.

I would be interested to learn more about the finances behind cinema screenings, as I have had the distinct impression that some recent productions I’ve seen have been designed particularly with the cinema screening in mind, rather than the audience in the Opera House. And for that matter, how do the finances behind DVD release work: they seem to be proliferating, with all the dangers that the productions (rather than the musical performance) may date quickly. What I’ve not seen is a marketing initiative associated with cinema screenings to get audiences actually into the theatres for a future performance. Surely that would be one way of creating a live audience for the future, instead of just advertising the next cinema screenings. Just a thought!

On another matter, this will be the last time I can say ‘More anon’ at the end of my article, as this will by my penultimate Nick’s Notes on Hello Stage. I hope you’ve enjoyed the curious way my musical mind works – I’ve certainly enjoyed writing for you. So, until next week’s last blog…

More anon!

© Nick Breckenfield, 2016

Nick Breckenfield has worked in and around the classical music industry over the last 25 years - at venues, agencies and as a programme note writer and marketeer. He was Classical Music editor for Whatsonwhen for 13 years, and current clients include the Borletti-Buitoni Trust.
Author: Nick Breckenfield
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