Thursday 4 October 2012

The Royal Opera House in the cinema - 2012/13

Royal Opera House, Cinema
To the Odeon Cinema in Shaftesbury Avenue this morning, for the launch of the Royal Opera House's 2012/13 Cinema season. Now, I have to confess that so far I have never yet seen any of the recent offerings of live opera in the cinema, (the last time I saw an opera in the cinema it was Zeferelli's La Traviata when it was first released). Nor am I a great fan of seeing opera on the TV screen, but perhaps that's because I've only ever possessed rather tiny TV's! Anyway, at the Odeon, Tony Hall gave a brief speech and then we were treated to a 30 minute film profiling both the Royal Opera House's cinema activities and their forthcoming season of three ballets and six operas, seven given live. Then afterwards there was a Q&A.

And, I have to admit that I was impressed. Even though we were only seeing bits, it was enough to make me curious about seeing opera and ballet in the cinema, if it was as good as this. Hall emphasised that though the Royal Opera House would indeed ultimately like to make money from this enterprise, the biggest reason for doing it is that they want to take great art and great performers to a wider audience.

Covent Garden seats around 2,200 people and many operas and ballets have runs of only six to ten performances, so not a lot of people can get to see them. In the last year, around 300,000 people saw the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet in cinemas with a further 10,000 seeing them on one of the outdoor free screen events. When the Royal Ballet did their live streaming day (a whole day in the life of the Royal Ballet streamed unedited), then the audience hit 1 million.

The number of sites showing the Royal Opera performances is growing. In 2009 there were just 45 sites in the UK and this has now expanded to 240.

Also, rather amazingly, when the Royal Ballet's La Fille mal gardee was broadcast last year, then on the day that it was released it was number three in UK box office takings, i.e. competing with mainstream feature films. And it was number ten in the weekly box office takings for its first week. That is rather amazingly, especially as Frederick Ashton's charming, characterful ballet is hardly something that you would think of as grabbing people's attentions.

The presentation in London was being duplicated at venues across the UK, with the Royal Opera ensuring that this presentation wasn't just a London based event, so that Kevin O'Hare, the director of the Royal Ballet, was in Manchester.

The film not only provided extracts from the operas and ballets being performed but also brief interviews with performers. I think that, on reflection, I heard the word wonderful rather too often, but overall it was illuminating and, as I have said, made me think that the genre works well. Not only in opera but in ballet. The cinema events also include backstage features, interview etc, adding value to the event and providing something which the live audience does not have access to.

In the film Kasper Holten pointed out that one of the things he likes about filmed opera is that it makes it clear that opera is an extreme art, with singers top notes clearly showing effort.

Looking at the extracts, I did wonder whether Christopher Weeldon's ballet Alice's Adventures in Wonderland might not work better on screen, certainly some of the visual effects came over very, very well and a lot of the detail was clearer than ever it might be in the theatre.

A lot, of course, depends on the cinema. If you are seeing the whole of the Royal Opera House's stage with a grand ensemble then you need a good wide screen and good audio to complement it.

The pieces chosen for the new season are an interesting mix with all being given live except Les Troyens and the new production of Nabucco. The ballet choices are relatively conservative, but Alice was crying out to be filmed and with just three ballets you could hardly have another contemporary work. But in the Q&A we were told that one of this year's triple bills is being filmed with a view to using it another year.

The full list of the performances is as follows:-
23 October, Swan Lake live with Zenaida Yanowsky and Nehemiah Kish in Anthony Dowell's still lovely and effective production.

November sees Les Troyens released, a film of the performances earlier this year.

13 December, Nutcracker with Roberta Marquez and Steven McRae, not exactly cutting edge Christmas fare, but Peter Wright's production is undoubtedly, and deservedly popular.

15 January 2013, La Boheme with Rolando Villazon and Maija Kovalevska conducted by Mark Elder. John Copley's venerable production still looks good and being as it is broadcast live, everyone in the cinema gets to participate in the the game of will he/won't he regarding Villazon's vocal health and the youthful role of Rodolpho

20 February 2013, Eugene Onegin with Simon Keenlyside and Krassimira Stoyanova conducted by Robin Ticciati. The first new production in the cinema season, and Kasper Holten's house debut (so no pressure there then). Also it features one of our great singing actors in Simon Keenlyside, so the film should be riveting.

28 March 2013, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. No cast yet, but as I have said this should work brilliantly on film. Expect a big hit.

29 April 2013, Nabucco. THE event. Placido Domingo in his role debut.

27 May 2013, La Donna del Lago, Juan Diego Florez, Joyce DiDonato, Colin Lee - you don't often get to see casts like this one so putting it in the cinema is brilliant. Its being directed by John Fulljames, so I hope that he brings something of his indy-opera past with him to the production and that its not all big frocks. (The last time I saw this opera live it was Marilyn Horne in doublet and hose; a great singing actress, but not a good look for her).

24 June 2013, Gloriana. The Royal Opera House's first production of the opera since it was premiered there, a striking new production by Richard Jones is promised (why does that make my heart sink). Still, the cast includes Susan Bullock and Toby Spence with conductor Paul Daniel.

Of the issues that came up in the Q&A, those I noted were:-

Lighting: Holten pointed out that cameras were improving, so that you didn't need quite such special lighting for filming, but for new productions they work with the lighting designer to ensure that there is coherence. For the older productions they try and work with the original designer.

International: they are now in 32 different countries. Last season they were in Brazil for the first time and this season they are in Japan where they hope to do well.

Mix: Tony Hall pointed out that they were the only company whose programme in the cinemas provided a mix of opera and ballet (both in superb quality performances). This is an indication of one of the things which makes the Royal Opera House so distinctive.

3 D: They were the first with 3 D opera, with Carmen and are looking at future projects with their partner in this.

There is one issue that no-one is yet addressing but comes to mind because today is also the launch of the English Touring Opera's autumn season with their Albert Herring at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre. I have heard both ETO and other touring opera companies mention that the live cinema events (and bear in mind that out there in the UK there is not just the Royal Opera, but the Met and the Bolshoi) can sometimes cut into theatre's willingness to take small scale touring opera. In an ideal world, audiences should have both. Yes, live cinema is wonderful, it enables you to experience the Royal Opera/Ballet, but also real, live opera is wonderful as well, even if its a small company with a simple set. You don't want theatre managements to have to choose.

On a final note, Tony Hall pointed out that having the performance live in the cinema (rather than just a film) really grabs people and that the cinema audience becomes part of the live audience.

Well, I hope to experience that for myself this season, and will report back!

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