Opera director and producer David Pountney has always been prepared to shake up people’s perceptions about opera. As Director of Productions at English National Opera from 1982 to 1993, he presided over productions which were innovative and challenged – or frequently enraged – some audience members. As well as directing, he has translated many operas into English, from Russian, Czech, German and Italian. He already had a long association with Welsh National Opera, before becoming its Chief Executive and Artistic Director in September 2011. He is a passionate for opera and engaging new audiences and has already devised some inventively themed touring seasons. As part of Opera Month, Mark Pullinger caught up with David Pountney to ask about programming ‘tougher’ works and about the impact opera screenings in cinemas is having.

David Pountney © Bregenzer Festspiele | Markus Gmeiner
David Pountney
© Bregenzer Festspiele | Markus Gmeiner

Since taking over the WNO reins, you’ve offered themed seasons. What are your aims/ thinking in putting these together?

I think of this in much the same way as an art curator would think of hanging pictures, or a chef would think of composing a meal. You want people to have a richer experience, not only by enjoying individual works, but also by being able to perceive the way in which one work casts light on another. This is particularly relevant when you consider our performing pattern, which delivers opera outside Cardiff in rather indigestible week-sized chunks. If people’s only option to see more opera is to go on consecutive nights, then that experience should also bring with it a wider purpose and stimulus.

How successful do you think these have been, particularly in terms of drawing audiences to repertoire which is ‘a tougher sell’, such as Lulu and Boulevard Solitude?

It’s too early to say in terms of box-office. This is a new venture, and I think it will take a couple of years at least to “bed down”. But it is definitely working well in terms of raising the profile of the company, and energising the debate about opera and what it is saying.

Sarah Tynan in Boulevard Solitude © Johan Persson | Welsh National Opera
Sarah Tynan in Boulevard Solitude
© Johan Persson | Welsh National Opera

As someone who attends the occasional cinema screening, I’ve noticed the Met Opera’s HD hosts are always very keen to stress the importance of attending live opera. Do you think that going to see The Met live via the cinema is drawing people into the art form or do you think your audiences are choosing to watch the screenings instead of going to their nearest opera company?

Historically people have always feared that the latest technical invention – LPs, CDs, DVDs etc 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. But some people may do both, and some may want to try the real thing having enjoyed the celluloid version.

What is an evident and very real danger is that politicians and arts funders, looking at the fact that they don’t have enough money at present to fund the sector properly, are beginning to use the argument that opera can now be distributed on celluloid, and that this removes the need for regional touring.

This is a very pernicious argument, first of all because it suggests there is an equivalence between live and celluloid, and this is simply untrue. In opera, as in many other of life’s essential activities, looking at pictures is not the same as the real thing! Secondly, because if you do take the unacceptable view that live and celluloid are interchangeable, then this has nothing to do with “touring” but could just as well happen in London. i.e. if you believe this, then why not close the company at Covent Garden and beam the Met direct into WC2? I am not for one moment favouring this, but it is the logical conclusion of those who argue that filmed events can replace live ones.

Marie Arnet (Lulu) © Welsh National Opera | Clive Barda
Marie Arnet (Lulu)
© Welsh National Opera | Clive Barda

Are cinema screenings having a neutering impact on opera direction, with houses 'playing safe' because of worldwide cinema sales?

The houses that are most active in the cinema, because they are the ones with the most money, have always been the most conservative in any case. What is undoubtedly regrettable is that the style of opera favoured in particular by The Met is coming to be seen by a whole generation of cinema goers as the norm for opera, whereas in reality it is a somewhat passé outpost.

Have you noticed that HD cinema relays have had an impact (positive or negative) on WNO's tickets sales?

We don’t have any hard data one way or the other. Opera America offered to do some exit research at American cinemas to try to ascertain people’s attitudes to that, but interestingly enough this research was not allowed to proceed! I wonder why?

Do you think that they genuinely generate new audiences and are these audiences transferring from the cinema to the opera house?

As I said, historically that has been the case, but the added geographical element may make a big difference. There is also the question of money. People are hard up at the moment, which may make the cinema option attractive.

 

Our thanks to David for taking the time to respond to our questions.