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Opera on the big screen

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This is an updated article which first  appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald six months ago. For opera on the small screen, see this, which appeared in SMH Spectrum last week.

Putting the arts – from opera, ballet, and theatre, to rock concerts and live comedy gigs — on screen is nothing new, but recent developments in broadcast technology have made ‘live’ screenings the next big thing. First among trailblazers is New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which launched ‘Metropolitan Opera: Live in HD” in 2006. Initially presented as one-off, real-time satellite broadcasts of live performances, there is now a stable of ‘Live at the Met’ recordings distributed to cinemas around the world.

“It’s been huge”, says Paul Dravet, manager of the Cremorne Orpheum on Sydney’s lower North Shore. “We’ve had events on a Sunday afternoon where 600 people have come to see an opera. It’s unheard of. You don’t get those sort of numbers for those session times, particularly with adults.”

Huge, and growing, according to Dravet.

“We’re seeing a much younger audience coming in, in addition to the opera buffs and the theatre buffs. Word of mouth is obviously strong and they’re just getting better and better. For the last National Theatre production – Phèdre with Helen Mirren — we did extraordinary business.”

But where does this surge of enthusiasm for imported high-end culture leave the home-grown purveyors of live entertainment? Getting in on the act is rapidly becoming a priority for Australia’s flagship arts organisations.

“We view it as an imperative,” says Liz Nield, marketing director at Opera Australia, who recently announced a partnership between themselves, Sydney Opera House and distributors CinemaLive. “La Scala and the Royal Opera House are there – it goes to relevance. We need to be seen in cinemas.”

Their production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro screened in 27 cinemas earlier this year, and they will present 5-7 operas a year for national and international cinema distribution. As of May 2011, their productions will go into a network of over 60 cinemas. The next screening is Rigoletto, screening in July.

The Australian Ballet’s first foray into cinema was in 2007, with Graeme Murphy’s radical rethink of The Nutcracker screening via live satellite broadcast in regional cinemas (in a collaboration with Film Australia and Screen Australia). Phillippe Magid, associate director of the Australian Ballet, confirms that they are now in ‘serious’ talks with CinemaLive and hope to be in cinemas on a regular basis in 2011.

“We’re fortunate that our seasons sell out,” says Magid, “but we still can’t get to every corner of Australia. There are cinemas out there, and people can also stream us live on their computer or download.”

Patrick McIntyre worked with the Ballet on Nutcracker and the subsequent broadcasts of Swan Lake and Firebird and Other Legends. Now, as general manager at Sydney Theatre Company, he is watching developments closely.

“In Australia the challenge is to find the right business model. The Met spends about US$1 million per capture. They’re making a huge investment. But if you’re the Met you can build a business model around your domestic market. Then exporting to Australia is just incremental revenue. Our domestic market is a lot smaller, so constructing a sustainable business model is going to take some nutting out.

“It won’t replace live shows and that’s not the intention,” he says. “We’ve been here before with the invention of the gramophone, the invention of the radio… These are all tools to keep live arts buoyant and sustainable.”

There is, however, a real sense of urgency: La Scala, Milan and the Paris Opera and Ballet already offer their productions in Australia, and the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden has just announced it will present opera in 3D in 2011.

“The international companies are establishing a first mover advantage in the market and that’s a concern,” says McIntyre. “There is pressure to solve these issues so that Australian arts are available as widely as possible.”

“It would be very undesirable if cinema screens offered a range of performing arts experiences, but it was all imported.”

Author: harryfiddler

Harriet Cunningham – aka @harryfiddler — is a freelance writer based in Sydney. Harriet wrote her first novel, about a runaway cat, at the age of 7. In the forty year gap between novel 1 and novel 2 she moved from London to Edinburgh to Sydney, ran an opera company, played violin on the opera house stage and sailed from Gove to Darwin. She is now a music critic and writer, best known as the critic who got banned by Opera Australia. She still hangs out at the Sydney Opera House, is still trying to get that novel published, and still plays the violin.

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