James Conway on ETO's research into opera in cinemas

Tuesday 17 June 2014

The Guildhall School of Music & Drama and ETO recently published the initial results from the first academic study into audiences for opera broadcasts in cinemas. ETO’s General Director James Conway offers some thoughts on opera cinema relays and their potential implications for the company.

I never seem to get to the movies these days; there’s just too much opera, theatre and live music that I feel I ought to go to (much of which I enjoy, so it’s a privilege more than a compulsion).

I love going to the cinema. Just writing it makes me feel excited. There was a time when, living in Dublin, I must have gone once or twice a week. What an astonishing, powerful, rich thing cinema is, or can be! I think of how nourishing it was, when I lived in Trivandrum, to go to the sparsely attended programmes at the Soviet House of Culture and the Alliance Française, as well as the packed, unruly, fascinating Bollywood and Tamil films in the big cinemas by the Fort.

So I like cinema, and I like opera. Personally, I have not enjoyed much opera on film, apart from Bergman’s Flute, Losey’s Giovanni and a few other very cinematic experiences. I find the experience of live relays curiously passive – for me, neither good opera nor good cinema. I guess that is ‘purist’, a bad word these days but not one to which I am unhappy to own up. It’s only my taste, anyhow, so it’s only important to me.

Papageno and Papagena’s duet from Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 film version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute

Over the last few years cinema relays and streaming of opera, together with YouTube opera, have transformed the business of reaching audiences (though I cannot see that they have thus far transformed the art). Opera companies seemed to me to be wonderfully unresponsive to this transformation. It’s not as if they should resist the change – but surely we all need to respond to a changed situation, or know why we are not changing. It’s too expensive a business to ignore changes in the audience.

I heard a lot of people saying that these changes would make a new audience for opera. I certainly hope that will be true! But I thought we should do some research to find out what kind of experience people had at cinematic experiences of opera, and how it influenced their feelings about opera on stage, because I couldn’t see any being done anywhere else.

Happily, Creativeworks London paired us up with excellent, skilled researchers at the Guildhall, and a cinema partner at the Barbican. They set up the whole thing, once they understood what we did not know but needed to know – and once they heard that we wanted to think about adapting our business model to a changing climate in order to reach audiences more effectively. It was always clear that the initial research would involve a small and particular London-based sample – but that we would be able to expand the sample regionally once the first stage was complete.

Like everyone else, we hoped we would learn that there was a new (and perhaps younger) audience for opera in cinema, and that that experience would make them more inclined to come to the theatre. So far, that’s not the learning from the research – so we had to challenge the assumptions about this.

The very best thing we learned is that opera relays – and now theatre relays – have saved a number of small cinemas, and invigorated many others. Long may that last! Smaller cinemas are a very important part of the cultural fabric of almost every city or town we visit.

It was less encouraging – though unsurprising in my own experience – that the audience for opera relays in cinema is as old or older than the theatre audience, and that only about 10% did not already attend opera (by which I mean live opera in theatres). More disheartening was that this small sample of new attendees did not feel more inclined to go to ‘live’ opera after attending a cinema relay.

We should have a larger sample by the end of the summer, drawn from a diverse regional collection of venues. I expect we will try to do some more work, theatre- based, over our next two tours. Then we will think hard about how that should influence what we do. It is not that we are thinking about doing live-relays of all our shows – far from it! It’s just that we will keep thinking about how to secure the largest possible audience for our work on tour, and how we will clarify what is particular about our performances.

A production shot from ETO’s 2014 production of Tippett’s King Priam

Personally, I am optimistic, though people rarely pick that out about me at first. I love everything ‘theatrical’. Something happens in a theatre that happens nowhere else (just like something happens in a cinema that happens nowhere else). If this means that we know we are right in choosing the repertoire that will shine in an uncompromising way in regional theatres (like our recent tour of King Priam, Paul Bunyan and The Magic Flute ) and schools (like Borka, the Goose with No Feathers and Rumbled), so much the better.

If it means we know we are on the right court in eschewing cinematic values in our production style, in respecting wonderful simplicity and directness, in foregrounding the sound of the unamplified voice, bingo! If it means that we have to imagine new kinds of meetings between artists and public, that’s all to the good.
There is one, clear goal, after all – thriving, enriching performance in regional theatres and cinemas (and at home!) all over the country.

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