Opera lovers have never had it so good. Last December alone, I saw Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros star in Martin Kušej's new Bavarian State Opera production of La forza del destino, watched Piotr Beczała booed at the opening night of La Scala’s new season and experienced the Metropolitan Opera’s Eugene Onegin – all without leaving the house. Webstreams from Munich and Milan, plus a radio relay (and a ridiculously late night) from New York, meant I could share in the thrill of live performances from across the operatic globe. I also saw The Met’s Falstaff, but had to ease myself out of the armchair and toddle to my local cinema for that one.

Falstaff at The Metropolitan Opera, New York © Ken Howard
Falstaff at The Metropolitan Opera, New York
© Ken Howard

Beaming opera into cinemas has become a big business since the Metropolitan screened The Magic Flute in 2006. Nearly 15 million tickets sales later, The Met: Live in HD shows no signs of waning in popularity, with other opera companies clambering aboard the bandwagon. Screening opera is an expensive business, however. The Royal Opera relays a number of its productions onto the big screen and yesterday announced that more people will see its performances next season in the cinema than will attend performances at Covent Garden. Opera Australia relays its popular Sydney Harbour extravaganzas around the world, while Glyndebourne has been screening a number of its productions since 2007, as well as offering webstreams during the course of its season. I doubt interval picnics can be quite the same at the back of the Odeon though.

Stuart Skelton in English National Opera's Peter Grimes © Robert Workman
Stuart Skelton in English National Opera's Peter Grimes
© Robert Workman

Even English National Opera has recently made its first foray into HD opera, less than two years after John Berry, its Artistic Director, told The Stage, “It is of no interest to me… this obsession about putting work out into the cinema can distract from making amazing quality work.” (1) Berry claimed “It is not a priority. It doesn’t create new audiences either.” So why the change of heart? It transpires that opera companies like to claim cinema relays are part of their outreach work, drawing in newcomers to the art form at affordable prices. Can these claims be verified or are established operagoers buying up these tickets instead, possibly at the expense of visiting the opera house itself?

When asked for evidence that opera in HD can attract new audiences, opera companies remain rather coy, responding that there is a lack of hard data to support or counter any claims. George Bruell, Glyndebourne's Head of Commercial Development admits “More work needs to be done to understand the audience profile for these broadcasts. In our experience, the cinema experience is complementary to the live theatrical experience and the two are not mutually exclusive. We often hear from people who have seen a live opera they loved at Glyndebourne and choose to enjoy that opera all over again at their local cinema a few weeks later. Equally, for some people the cinema screenings are their best opportunity to see Glyndebourne’s work or an affordable and convenient way to try it for the first time.”

Glyndebourne HD relay © Glyndebourne Productions
Glyndebourne HD relay
© Glyndebourne Productions

Statistical data for this is scant. There has been a study, undertaken by OPERA America, in cooperation with the Met and Shugoll Research (2) which suggests that of a (small) sample of attendees in the United States who responded to a questionnaire at two Met relays, 20% hadn’t attended live opera for the previous two years. Of these, 27% had never attended any live opera –  about 5% of the overall sample. What is clear is the high return rate  of the Met screenings, with 74% having previously attended a transmission. There’s a loyal audience, but I suspect it’s an aging one.

My own experience makes me sceptical. When I first visited my local cinema for The Met in HD, I wasn’t in the least surprised to see an overwhelmingly elderly audience. One lady bewailed that we didn’t receive relays from The Royal Opera (a situation now remedied). “But London is only an hour away on the train,” I countered. “Ah, my husband is disabled and we can’t really get up to London any more,” was the entirely reasonable response. Cinema offers a way for those no longer able (or willing) to travel long distances to get their operatic fix.

Victoria Dietrich, Press Officer at Staatsoper Berlin, suggests, “We should take into consideration whether opera HD relays in cinema primarily reach ‘opera strangers’ and should be considered as a means for developing new audiences, or if their target group is not rather the opposite – an opera aficionado audience – an audience eager not to miss what is going on internationally.” Cinema offers a means of catching star names in big budget productions around the world, making it an attractive proposition for seasoned operagoers.

Met Opera: Live in HD in Times Square © Lovis Dengler Ostenrik for the Times Square Alliance
Met Opera: Live in HD in Times Square
© Lovis Dengler Ostenrik for the Times Square Alliance

Is there a danger, then, that audiences will prefer to see the great stars on the big screen at the expense of supporting their local companies? David Pountney, artistic director of Welsh National Opera, sounds a warning bell: “Historically, people have always feared that the latest technical invention – LPs, CDs, DVDs – would sap the public for live events. Up to now they have generally been seen, in fact, to have built the audience rather than depleted it. The difference in this case is the element of geography. It takes effort and organisation for a group from, say, Cheltenham, to hire a minibus and come to Cardiff or Bristol. They may well choose to go to the cinema round the corner.” However, Michael Volpe, General Manager of Opera Holland Park doubts cinema will deplete the appetite for live opera: “If audiences choose to reject visiting live productions in favour of cinema,  then I doubt they were terrifically committed in the first place and likely not a regular.”

So where are new operagoers going to come from? When I first started going to the opera (La traviata, Welsh National Opera, Southampton, 1988), I often felt I was one of the youngest in the audience. A quarter of a century on, rather depressingly, I still feel like one of the youngest at venues outside London. Companies are having to fight harder than ever to bring in new, young audiences. Inventive outreach work and ticket schemes are needed to get first-timers through the doors and, more importantly, make such an impact that they wish to return.

Angela Gheorghiu in La traviata © Catherine Ashmore
Angela Gheorghiu in La traviata
© Catherine Ashmore

What part can the media play in generating a new audience? Opera on television has become marginalized – a Yuletide bone thrown to the opera fan in the hope of justifying a corporation’s arts remit. In 1994, the BBC cleared its schedules at short notice to broadcast Covent Garden’s new production of La traviata (the one that crowned Angela Gheorghiu a star) live to millions of viewers. I simply cannot see that happening now. The opportunity to capture the attention of the casual viewer and instil a lifelong love for opera via the medium has disappeared.

I’m also dubious about the ability of opera in cinemas to generate new audiences. At £28 a ticket for The Met, it’s not a cheap night out, especially if there are two of you and you’re not sure if it’s necessarily ‘your thing’. Perhaps a free webstream bridge that gap. It’s a way to bring opera into people’s homes for free, unless a paywall operates, and is offered by a number of opera companies. In 2013, over 100,000 people watched Glyndebourne productions online, more than the audience which attended the festival itself. However, no data is provided on how long these people actually viewed each stream before encountering buffering problems or other distractions competed for their attention.

Can watching on a laptop or via a cinema screen ever replicate – or replace – experiencing it live? Johannes Debus, Music Director of Canadian Opera Company, recently said, “Opera is the greatest art form, but there is a price tag. People ask themselves why should I go to the opera and pay high prices if I can see it on the internet or at the cinema – but it’s a two-dimensional experience. Live opera in the theatre is three-dimensional. Opera needs to be seen in an opera house because of the magnified emotions. Live performance is how the art form was born – as a religious ritual in ancient Greece. Opera is a communal experience.” (3). James Clutton, producer at Opera Holland Park, agrees: “I have never really understood the power of cinema screenings, but am aware that more and more it looks like I am like the person who said talking movies wouldn’t catch on. For me, much of the power and emotion of opera is hearing the music live.”

Whether cinema relays generate new audiences is open to debate, but their popularity with an established audience is beyond doubt. Outreach also includes making contact with audiences who, for whatever reason, cannot travel to the opera house itself. As long as it doesn’t have a detrimental impact on actual ticket sales in houses, opera in HD can enhance what companies try to achieve, helping them to reach a larger audience. Whether it can encourage greater attendance in opera houses themselves remains to be seen.

(1)http://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2012/05/eno-chief-claims-opera-screenings-dont-attract-new-audiences/

(2) http://www.operaamerica.org/content/research/Met%20HD%20Article.pdf

(3)http://w.thewholenote.com/index.php/newsroom/feature-stories/24842-coc-s-johannes-debus-and-alexander-neef