When Valentí Oviedo, General Manager of Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, asked subscribers what a digital opera offering could provide that might be missing from their experience in the theatre, the responses were varied. One said “I sit in the last row of the stalls and I cannot see how the orchestra play and I cannot see the conductor”. For another, it was “I want to read the surtitles in the original language, how the opera was written”. A third fondly recalled visits to the Liceu with his father, who would always bring a score to the performance and follow it by torchlight (something not permitted today). 

Valentí Oviedo
© A. Bofill

When Covid-19 hit in 2020, just about every opera house on the planet scrambled to find the best way of engaging with video. Some exhumed their back catalogues, some played to cameras in empty houses, some created special projects for filming. For Oviedo, it was a case of “how do we do what we’re already doing, but better”.

The Liceu was almost totally destroyed by a fire in 1994 and the rebuilding project was so extensive that the theatre in La Rambla, which had been privately owned, was committed to the care of a new public foundation. When the building reopened in 1999, the company immediately set about improving its reach, becoming one of the first opera houses to broadcast its performances live into cinemas. So filming opera was nothing new to the Liceu, but when the pandemic arrived, they lacked a platform for web streaming. As an interim measure, they could rely on third parties like Operavision or Arte, but Oviedo set about considering what a new platform could provide.

Quickly, he decided that simply filling a website with their back catalogue would be the wrong option: this wouldn’t really add value, and besides, there were other houses with huge back catalogues who would be better placed to take this approach. Rather, Oviedo decided to view the problem through the eyes of a season subscriber, “to imagine that a subscriber could have at least the same experience that he has when he comes to our theatre”. The objective was twofold: firstly, to enhance the experience for existing and new subscribers, and secondly, to provide opera to people who are unable to come to the Liceu on a regular basis because they live too far away or can't afford the tickets. “We thought we could have a product which would not compete with the experience that someone has when they come to the theatre, but would be complementary.”

Soon, the wish list of features was sufficiently long that it became clear that the Liceu could only fulfil it by creating their own platform. To add to the technical elements, doing this would open up the possibility of building a community around the Liceu’s digital offering, providing contact with the artistic teams, most notably the director and conductor, with a “chat master” for the live broadcasts who can talk to a subscriber in the way that they might have chosen to talk to the person in the seat next door. It also became clear that the platform could be international in scope. From there, the concepts began to take shape.

Liceu+LIVE will open its (virtual) doors on 5th November with a performance of Il trovatore, that most Spanish-flavoured of Verdi operas, directed by Barcelona native Àlex Ollé and starring Saioa Hernández, one of the big stars of the Spanish singing scene, as Leonora and Juan Jesús Rodriguez as her nemesis Di Luna. The €60 subscription (€30 to current Liceu subscribers) will buy you access to the digital season’s five operas and (in future seasons) to the five in the previous year: that’s low cost enough that Oviedo considers that “the price is not a barrier to access to the opera”. You will be able to watch the live stream on the day of the performance, or the “Premium edition” on demand around 10 days later. Oviedo believes that this first set of five operas is particularly strong: as well as Il trovatore, there’s the Lotte de Beer production of Il trittico, with Giorgetta sung by Lise Davidsen, the hottest property on the international soprano circuit, and Suor Angelica sung by Ermonela Jaho (for whom this has become a signature role). Then there is Tosca with Maria Agresta, Macbeth with an all-star cast of Sondra Radvanovsky, Luca Salsi and Erwin Schrott, and Massenet’s Manon with Nadine Sierra and Javier Camarena. The strong Spanish flavour is a matter of no little pride: “we are very proud of trying to push the new Spanish star system and try to give opportunities to the singers as we did many years ago with Caballé or Carreras.”

Valentí Oviedo at the launch of Liceu+LIVE
© A. Bofill

While the live stream has features like the chat master and backstage views, it’s the Premium Edition that’s packed with new functionality. As well as choosing surtitles from English, Spanish, Catalan or the opera’s original language, viewers will be able to select their camera viewpoint to watch the conductor and the orchestra or bring up the vocal score of the opera on screen, synchronised with the music. They will have access to commentary from the conductor and director, to answer questions like “which top note is the soprano singing in this aria” or “what was the idea behind this piece of staging”. They will be able to watch the mechanics of set changes.

Crucially, it will be made easy for viewers to watch individual arias or scenes. Oviedo is honest about the reality of watching opera at home. “How many times in a year can you see a complete opera on a screen? You can see a complete opera when you go to a theatre, but our experience is that when you’re sitting on your sofa, in some periods of a long opera, your mind drifts away. It’s obvious that opera requires an intellectual effort and that’s more difficult to get in your home. But if you’re a real opera lover, then to have the choice to see an opera in several ways, I think that’s a really nice experience, like a game, because you see many hidden things that you normally can’t get at.”

To make these concepts into reality, the Liceu turned to Mediapro, a Barcelona-based business which has grown into one of the largest media companies in the Spanish-speaking world, with offices in 31 countries, including a flagship “Media Park” in Saint Just Desvern on the outskirts of Barcelona. There will be no compromises on image quality with seven 4K cameras and Dolby 5.1 compatible sound, and Mediapro have the required technical capabilities to provide Liceu+LIVE on a wide variety of platforms, from web browsers to mobile apps to smart TVs. From their work in sports (particularly football and motor sports), they have all the experience needed to show the opera from a multi-camera point of view, to scale a platform to a very large indeed and to provide the interactive features the Liceu wanted.

Oviedo hopes to reach international opera lovers as well as those in Spain, for four important reasons. Firstly, there’s a simple goal of improving the Liceu’s reputation: “we think that we can show to the opera lovers of the world that we have really good operas here and that this platform can help them to see the opera in a different way.” Secondly, there’s the potential to gain revenue from a very large number of potential subscribers, starting with Catalonia and moving outwards to Spain and Latin America and then beyond. That’s a contrast to the Liceu’s box office: with 115 performances a year in a 2,000 seat theatre that is generally at 85% capacity, combined with an unwillingness to impose swingeing price increases, the potential revenue growth is strictly limited. Thirdly, there’s the possibility of attracting overseas visitors to visit the Liceu itself. And last but not least, there is the never-ending quest for sponsorship and patronage. “Nowadays, because of globalisation, the headquarters of these companies are in any part of the world: you can’t go to their headquarters in Barcelona or Madrid. So we have to get an international theatre in order to get international income.”

In a nutshell: where other video platforms have gone for breadth, giving viewers the maximum choice of what to watch, Liceu+LIVE chooses to go for depth, with a limited choice of titles but in the expectation that hardcore opera fans will be using the extra features to explore each opera in fine detail. As with any innovation, there are risks: Oviedo has measured those risks, he says, and is placing a large bet on there being enough of those hardcore opera fans in Spain and around the world to make his platform into a winner. Let’s hope that bet pays off.

This interview was sponsored by the Gran Teatre del Liceu.