A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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Happy Birthday, Sam

Samuel Barber: Absolute Beauty from H. Paul Moon on Vimeo.

It’s the birthday of the American composer Samuel Barber today. He’s best known for the Adagio for Strings, which is actually the second movement of his 1936 String Quartet. Whether you heard it at a concert, at a memorial service or at the movies, you’d know it instantly.

But that’s not what piqued my interest in a new documentary about Barber, Absolute Beauty, made by Film-maker H. Paul Moon. What got me interested was this interview with Moon, where he talks about making films about classical / new music.

In hindsight, I would have never started the film if I knew how hard it would be:  educational documentaries about “classical” music are increasingly treated like commercial assets (no matter the financial reality), just as the overall genre of documentaries preoccupies more than ever with cause-driven projects — and thus the arts as a subject matter suffers, at a time when outreach using new media is more important than ever, to bring audiences back into the live music experience.

It’s his distinction between recording a performance — Carmen Live on video, Barry Manilow at the London Palladium — and using the documentary format to interact with music. Engaging with a work, as he puts it, ‘beyond what just rattles air’. And that thought has sent me back to look for projects like Genevieve Lacey and Clare Sawyer’s ‘Recorder Queen’, a ‘bio-docu-mation’, which is also about going beyond the score, beyond the music, beyond the performer.

It makes me wonder what more amazing work could be done linking imaginative vision-sculptors with wild-eyed air-rattlers.

I hope to review Absolute Beauty on this site soon, and hopefully Recorder Queen too. But in the meantime, I’m gonna take another look at the trailer and wish Mr Barber a happy birthday.

A quick plug for my crowd-funding project: if you haven’t already taken a look, get thee over to www.unbound.com/books/sanctuary to view a short video about my pictorial history of Dartington International Summer School of Music, then, pretty please,  pledge and share!


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Opera on the big screen

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.”