Want to go to La Scala for less than the cost of a pasta dinner? Increasing numbers of people are visiting the world’s great music events via the local cinema, and companies have not been slow to grasp the opportunity to widen their audiences and spread their name to a global audience. Phillip Sommerich reports on music’s hot ticket

The 2012/13 season is going to be busy for many opera fans and balletomanes: performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, London’s Royal Opera House, La Scala, Opera and Ballet de Paris, Opera Australia and, next summer, Glyndebourne and Salzburg Festival. All at £15-£30 for an excellent seat and the knowledge they are adding almost nothing to their travel costs or carbon footprint.

This teleportation is achieved by live digital satellite relays of performances to venues around the world – known in the trade as event cinema. When just six years ago Peter Gelb, became general manager of the New York house and combined his career strands in arts management and television to launch ‘The Met: Live in HD’, many intendants sniffed at what seemed brash populism. Now they are eager to emulate.

Covent Garden, in this its third season, is putting out ten opera and ballet performances. ‘There are two aims: to reach as many people as possible and to generate a commercial return that we can invest back into what we are doing on the main stage,’ says Alastair Roberts, managing director of ROH enterprises. ‘Cinema is one of those nice areas that enables us to achieve both.’

Reaching out: The Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake with Zenaida Yanowsky and Nehemiah Kish
Photo: Bill Cooper courtesy of Royal Opera House

Performances go out to 600-700 screens, the satellite footprint spreads from Latin and North America to Israel, with hard drives sent to venues further afield. He reckons an average cinema audience in the UK alone is eight times the house capacity of 2,200. The live relay of La Fille mal gardée last season ranked about fourth in UK box office for that night.

But Roberts has heard mutters that this is becoming too much of a good thing, with ever more houses joining the trend. ‘I think cinemas will start to regulate that a bit,’ he says. ‘You’ve obviously got an issue around repertoire as well. People will only go to see so many Toscas and Traviatas, while the less well known repertoire is commercially more challenging. I think cinemas will say, “We want one or two fantastic opera providers and one or two fantastic ballet providers, plus special events.” ’

Gelb sees cost as the cull factor: ‘In order to cover costs of these transmissions, which exceed $1m [£617K] per show, you need to have a very wide digital network, otherwise you lose money. There is a break-even point of 150,000 tickets; we on average sell about 250,000.’

The rumoured $10m (£6.17m) annual profit from Met HD Live may pale beside its $300m (£185m) annual spend, but is essential in a recession-racked US where donors are increasingly hard to find.

Gelb and Roberts deny they put pressure on distributors and cinemas to stem the flow of rival offerings, but Giovanni Cozzi, managing director of New York-based Rising Alternative, has had difficulty breaking into the UK market. It plans cinema relays of up to 30 performances this year, all but eight of them live. Its performances are shown on 400-600 screens in 40 countries. The popularity it enjoys in continental Europe – in Spain it goes into 135 cinemas – contrasts with the UK, where a handful of arthouse venues this season will take eight operas and ballets from Paris, four or five from La Scala and one from Bologna. He did get 34 UK locations for Salzburg Festival last summer, when the Met and ROH were out of season.

Live satellite relays from Salzburg were tricky, though: the mountain-locked city has line of sight to just one satellite, so the signal had to be sent to it, onward to others, down to transmission company Arqiva in Hampshire and then out to cinemas.

Cozzi concedes there are other problems with UK relays of its shows: cinemas want to screen them on slack weekdays but Paris and Milan start times equate to early evening in the UK. British audiences – and even more so American ones – are resistant to Salzburg’s enthusiasm for radical staging: its La bohème is set in contemporary Paris, Don Giovanni ‘is very powerful, it almost felt like a David Lynch movie’.

Independent cinema chain Picturehouse is taking Salzburg relays, along with National Theatre performances and many other cultural events. According to Marc Allenby, head of commercial development, they account for 10-12% of admissions, against a trade average of 1-2%. Growth has flattened recently as the market becomes crowded, he admits. ‘There is probably a point now where there is more material than people can screen and it is a matter of what is attractive to an audience.’

Picturehouse cinemas try to give relays a sense of occasion: sound levels are monitored closely, food and drink are available, the Ritzy in Brixton, south London, hands out extensive programme notes. The Everyman chain offers patrons a free glass of bubbly on arrival, and Roberts has heard that in one South African theatre patrons attend attired as if for a gala and are offered champagne.

The chain was distributor and exhibitor for a run of Opera Australia recordings, which it put on at relatively slack times over the summer. As a result, he admits, attendances were disappointing, ‘but there was a demand for it and breadth of content is also important’.

Ultimately, as Gelb indicates, market economics may decide. Met Live HD tickets cost around £30 – double the price of most other arts events – partly reflecting the glittering casting, partly that New York Saturday matinees run into UK evening peak time for blockbuster movies.

But Roberts says for the ROH: ‘If we had a choice of charging slightly more or slightly less, we would charge less because we want it to be as accessible as possible.’

English National Opera artistic director John Berry caused a stir in May when he said opera relays did not expand audiences and were of no interest to him. Understandable, perhaps, from an English-only house. His tone has moderated: ‘We are always exploring new opportunities to use film and do not rule anything out. We have worked on simulcasts and the first live 3D opera with Sky Arts. What is of interest to me is honing our live theatrical experiences and building a wider interest in opera through a diverse and experimental approach to music theatre with artists such as Terry Gilliam, Improbable and Peter Konwitschny.

‘As with La Fura Dels Baus’ Grand Macabre and more recently The Death of Klinghoffer we have developed an imaginative use of video and film for the stage which will be further developed with Michel van der Aa’s Sunken Garden. However, if opera in cinema becomes the main event and not the live work on stage, we feel that is not a step forward but a step back.’

Deborah Voigt interviews Bryn Terfel at the Metropolitan Opera’s Das Rheingold
Photograph: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Peter Gelb, who has received much flak from New York critics for the alleged populism of Met productions, believes cinema relays keep singers ‘on their toes’ in terms of acting. ‘They can be seen in close-up even when they are not singing and that keeps them in role.’

But will some cash-strapped arts ministers question whether this global trend eradicates the need for regional opera companies to bring live performances to rural areas? Richard Mantle, general director of Opera North, has a ready answer. The cinema audiences tend to be the same people who go to opera houses and, while a relay of Madam Butterfly to Leeds may sell 250 tickets, Opera North can sell 10,000 for a run at Leeds Grand Theatre.

He is more interested in delivering performances to those who may not even be able to get to a cinema and plans trials of subscription-based streaming and downloads of Opera North productions. ‘More of the UK population lives outside London than in it, and they deserve to be able to see live performance.’







Met by numbers …

The Met: Live in HD will use relay by eight satellites 12 shows this  season, to be seen by three million people in 1,900 cinemas (128 in the UK) in 60 countries, across six time zones and every continent except Antarctica. Ecuador, Guatemala, India, Jamaica, Madagascar, and Qatar are the latest additions to the network. Since the series launched in 2006 it has sold more than ten million tickets. The largest venue is the Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City, with a seating capacity of more than 6,000.

The smallest cinema is probably the Regent in Greymouth, New Zealand, with 26 seats.



Met in words …

Underlining the global span of event cinema, the subtitles for the Met screenings are produced by Voice & Script International (VSI) in London, initially in English, German and American Spanish, with Brazilian Portuguese, Italian and Russian added.

In one way, the opera screenings are simpler than VSI’s normal fare of feature films, tv programmes and corporate presentations, says project manager Tilly O’Neill. Because they are for live performances, translations of the scripts used for the Met’s in-house subtitles are typed into a word-processing document, and on the day a woman sitting in a van outside the Met watching the relay on screen presses a button to send out each title in six languages on cue.

‘But there are lots of rules,’ she adds. ‘The maximum number of characters you can have per line is 50, including spaces, and it is two lines per subtitle. The Met has lots of rules about punctuation.’ A sentence in most foreign languages is 20% longer than in English, so conciseness is all. Then there are the cinematic rules, such as text should not appear during a change of shot.

O’Neill and her team of translators love the job – and attending screenings to see shows and audience reaction

‘It’s my favourite project,’ says the French translator. ‘Quite literally it is my scene because I did literary studies at university so I feel I can express my creativity in the subtitles.’