Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh

As a postscript to Opera Month and the issue of cinema relays, yesterday saw the launch of English National Opera’s new season. It included the news that, after the success of the company’s initial foray into the medium with Peter Grimes (and with Benvenuto Cellini to come in June), five productions are set to be beamed into cinemas next year. This will include the operatic debut for film director Mike Leigh with The Pirates of Penzance, prompting questions as to whether he’ll want to personally direct the broadcast. It’s an ambitious step up from ENO, though whether it deserves the tag “groundbreaking” trumpeted in its press release is a moot point.

Earlier today, the Vienna State Opera unveiled its new season, including plans to webstream more than 40 of its performances in its HD quality “live at home” series. You can watch via the internet, Smart TV or other mobile devices. The Staatsoper declares that their initiative sends “a strong international message that art on a digital platform also has a value and must be paid for accordingly”. A single ticket to view a live event will cost €14, but season subscriptions will also be available, whereas on-demand stream from the video store costs €5 and is available for a week (comparable to The Met Opera on-demand service). An interesting idea is that viewers will be able to choose which view they get, deciding between an overall view of the stage and a live-edited film of the opera.

Wiener Staatsoper Live © Wiener Staatsoper
Wiener Staatsoper Live
© Wiener Staatsoper

Generating further income is important for the State Opera, especially given last months news of a fourteenth consecutive year of state funding freeze, which prompted its current Director, Dominique Meyer, to speak out. Bachtrack asked him what sort of impact that would have on their operations. “We will be working together with the government to find a budgetary solution. The problem is that the fixed costs of the Vienna State Opera are very high, yet they cannot be reduced due to our extensive repertoire - we have more than 300 performances of about 60 different operas and ballets each season! We are, however, in the fortunate position that running costs are more than covered by our earnings - we contribute 47% to cover our costs.”

Meyer also confirmed to us that “Yes, we have been ordered to increase ticket prices, and we have done so for the coming season. We hope that this will not have an impact on our capacity for filling seats, which currently run at over 99%.”

Kasper Holten © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Kasper Holten
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Gone are the days when opera companies only had to worry about what the rival company down the road or in the next city was planning. Competition is global and so is the audience. How profitable are cinema screenings? Alastair Roberts, Managing Director of ROH Enterprises, revealed that “Any income generated from the live Cinema Season is ploughed directly back into the main stage activities at the Royal Opera House.  As you can imagine, it is an expensive operation and as government funding declines, we have to find new revenue streams to maintain the breadth and excellence of the work that we put on our Covent Garden stage.” It has planned an ambitious season of broadcasting 11 of its opera and ballet productions meaning that – for the first time – cinema attendance will outstrip audience attendance in Covent Garden itself.

The new ROH staging of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, already seen via cinema relays, was broadcast on BBC television last weekend. Video technology plays a large part in Kasper Holten’s production, as it did in his company debut the season before with Eugene Onegin. In conversation with Holten last month, I questioned him about its use and whether the presence of HD cameras influences the way opera directors now work. Holten was adamant that he directs for the audience in the House, admitting that the video projections made the production even harder to film.

Mariusz Kwiecień (Don Giovanni) © Bill Cooper | ROH
Mariusz Kwiecień (Don Giovanni)
© Bill Cooper | ROH

Having seen Don Giovanni both in the ROH and in the cinema, I would counter that the new production was almost distractingly busy seen live and that the broadcast version at least allowed the eye to focus on a few details. Roberts stated that “Some titles lend themselves more to the big screen than others. For example The Royal Ballet’s new production of Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland… is full of clever projections which look particularly striking and are effective on the silver screen.”

Last year’s Eugene Onegin was also controversial, splitting critics and audiences. For the DVD release, Holten recorded a ‘director’s commentary’ to “add value to the overall experience and offer viewers greater insight into the production” (Roberts). Perhaps this is a new way for directors to communicate their ideas directly to audiences.

The Royal Opera still has a way to go to match the Metropolitan Opera. The Met: Live in HD annually produces more content and is seen by more people (more than 2.5 million) in more cinemas (2,000) and more countries (66) than any other alternative cinema content provider. With the recent admission from Peter Gelb that the Met’s artists are facing possible wage cuts, the financial success of its Live in HD brand is increasingly important. What is clear for the average operagoer is that competition between houses has never been fiercer and the choices have never been greater. To paraphrase W.S. Gilbert, when operatic duty’s to be done, the current audience’s lot is a happy one.