Earlier this week there was much media coverage of the fracas at a performance of Einstein on the Beach at the Barbican, when Mark Shenton objected to someone taking flash photographs. That the someone was Bianca Jagger ensured coverage in the press. Then Thursday came the reports that John Berry had announced in an interview with The Stage that ENO would never get involved in live cinema performances, feeling that opera should remain a fully live experience.
Often, when you go to the opera you are insulated from the general theatre going experience, sitting amongst a theatre of like-minded enthusiasts who, by and large, know how to behave (though I'm sure everyone has a story to tell about the ones that don't). But, as anyone who has attended a musical in the west end can testify, ordinary audiences seem to be losing the understanding of how to behave in the theatre.
For many of the general theatre goers, the theatre is an extension of film and TV and, as such, behaviour can be adjusted accordingly so that eating, drinking and talking is perceived as OK. The theatrical experience isn't one where you sit mute. It reminds me of my mother's stories of her youth where in silent films, the whole audience would chant the dialogue that appeared on-screen.
This attitude can often find its way to operatic performances. So that the spat at Einstein on the Beach becomes understandable. Especially as the Barbican allowed audience members to come and go as they pleased, to eat and drink in the theatre, because of the works length and lack of intervals. Frankly, it struck me that it would have been less disturbing to have inserted intervals in the piece so that the disturbance was contained, leaving the audience able to concentrate without having people constantly getting up around them.
This ceases to be operatic entertainment and moves into the general theatrical realm, so it is understandable that audience members thought flash photography OK. After all, commentators nowadays tweet during performances. And I was recently at a performance of Tosca at ENO when the young woman next to me seemed far more interested in her phone than in the opera.
So while I sympathise with John Berry's point, I can't help feeling that the war has been lost, audiences all too often think of theatre as an extension of film/TV/video. If to film something on your phone is to validate it, somehow make the experience real, then what hope have we of convincing such an audience that opera going is already a vivid, fully interactive experience and that they should leave their phones behind.
One final point, the issue of accessibility; is making opera available in HD in cinemas in danger of replacing live opera as an experience? By having opera in cinemas, are we expanding the horizons of audiences for whom access to live opera is difficult? Or are we simply providing an economic way of enabling large opera companies to tour, albeit virtually. Neither ENO nor ROH now do regular tours to the regions, though Glyndebourne still admirably does. Pimlico Opera's recent tours of Grange Park Opera productions have been threatened by Arts Council cuts. Even James Conway of English Touring Opera has said that they are finding it harder to persuade some theatres to take ETO because audiences prefer large scale operas in HD films to smaller scale live opera.
So is live opera on film a useful way of widening the operatic market or an insidious way for the arts funders to ensure that plebs can get access to 'high quality' experience which is good enough. Are we going to see the development of a culture where touring to the regions or making a special trip to go to the opera is reserved for the few?