Opera at the movies: a new immersive art form?

Some of the ENO company performing in David Alden's production of Britten's Peter Grimes English National Opera's production of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes

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As the English National Opera stages its first live event relay into UK cinemas, its film director sees the potential to change and enhance the art form itself.

Grammy-nominated Andy Morahan is best known for shooting music videos for the likes of Michael Jackson, George Michael and Guns N' Roses, as well as 3D concert movie JLS: Eyes Wide Open.

And instead of simply delivering an outside broadcast from ENO's home at the London Coliseum, he believes filmmakers "should be creating a completely different experience".

Exterior of The Metropolitan Opera House, New York The Metropolitan Opera House, New York

Previous broadcasts have "tended to be shot in quite a flat way, just looking at the stage" he explains. "You don't really get a sense of where you are and they miss out on some great angles. You can have reverse shots and even someone shooting while part of the chorus. You can make the stage itself the centre of the immersive experience."

Employing multiple cameras, Morahan likes "to keep them moving. Whether it's little creeping zooms, dolly shots or jib crane shots. I always found with music videos that the more the camera moves, the more lyrical it looks."

Opera has become Europe's dominant event cinema genre, accounting for more than a third of the burgeoning market according to analysis of eight countries, including the UK, by media research organisation Screen Digest. But it could still benefit from greater visual experimentation, Morahan suggests, and the "injection" of a rock 'n' roll sensibility.

The Coliseum in St Martin's Lane, London The Coliseum in St Martin's Lane, London, home of ENO

Covent Garden, Glyndebourne and other major houses have already done live production into UK cinemas. It is almost eight years since New York's Met initiated their Live in HD series.

ENO Screen's first venture is David Alden's critically acclaimed production of Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes, to be followed in June 2014 by Terry Gilliam's staging of Hector Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini.

  • In 2012, opera screenings accounted for 39.7% of all event cinema events in the UK.
  • Classical music made up 13.7%, ballet 11.5%, popular music 10.7% and sport 3.1%.
  • The UK has embraced event cinema more than any other European country, with 131 events screened, compared to 129 in the Netherlands, 87 in Ireland and 49 in Germany & Austria combined.
  • The majority of events in the UK were streamed live (51.9%), though in Sweden 87.2% were live.

Morahan plans to "slightly raise the lights in the auditorium - nothing that will spoil the experience for anyone there but so those in the cinemas get a sense of the event's space and scale rather than perfunctory coverage of the performers."

Although he'll be staying "respectful and careful" regarding Alden's staging, the ENO have been "very co-operative and let me enhance the lighting, so it has a more cinematic feel".

In rehearsals, "we even had a guy in costume on stage and the lead singers never realised he was there. Any fears they had about us running around with cameras were allayed by us not being particularly intrusive, we're just trying to be clever about it."

English National Opera: Peter Grimes English National Opera: Peter Grimes

The ENO were previously wary of event cinema, with artistic director John Berry stating in May 2012 that screenings "are of no interest to me … it doesn't create new audiences either. This obsession about putting work out into the cinema can distract from making amazing quality work."

Opera does have an "innate conservatism", Morahan admits, borne from tight rehearsal schedules and the rotation of several shows at once, "creating a mindset of production where everything has to be locked down and detailed, obstacles that I often have to get through". ENO Screen was only developed once they were convinced they could do something "really creative".

"If they can get that message out to the masses, that they're a different kind of opera company, doing contemporary, radical things with interesting directors in the English language, that will be something unique" he says."I'm not saying Peter Grimes is a game-changer. But it's the first step in potentially doing something very different."

ENO Screen is now poised to produce around six performances from the autumn and Morahan hopes to "build cameras into the sets, to give you an incredible intimacy that you would never get in a theatre stall seat."

In June 2013, Margaret Williams shot another production of Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach, in the fishing town where the opera is set, for a film that played in 70 cinemas. Morahan anticipates such site-specific events merging with live performance, "so that Peter Grimes, in five years time, would feature live scenes on the beach then have you coming back into the theatre. The potential for hybrid art forms is enormous."

A fishing boat on Aldeburgh Beach A fishing boat on Aldeburgh Beach

But while cinema is changing opera, opera is also changing cinema, reflects Melissa Keeping, chair of the Event Cinema Association. Attracting those who live outside of metropolises like London and New York, so-called high art screenings are also "enticing back" those "who've been turned off by the multiplex experience".

  • Despite shows like the pre-recorded The Comedy Store: Raw and Uncut, and Ross Noble's 2007 show Nobleism Larger Than Live, relayed in Vue cinemas in the UK, comedy has not established itself in event cinema as strongly as other art forms, perhaps because of the need for interaction with the audience.
  • However, French comedian Florence Foresti registered an astonishing 87,000 ticket sales in France, Belgium and Switzerland for a one-off live show in September 2012.
  • The market for non-film content has developed with the digitization of cinemas. Globally, more than three quarters of screens are now digitized, with digital cinema projectors able to show a wide range of content that was impossible with the previous, 35-millimetre format.
  • Source: IHS Screen Digest Report 2013
  • In November 2013 Doctor Who's 50th Anniversary episode became the largest ever simulcast of a television drama, with The Day of the Doctor broadcast in 94 countries across 6 continents. Over 1500 cinemas screened it in 3D, selling more than half a million tickets, despite being freely available on television for many.

In tandem with plusher seating and innovations such as drinks service, cinemas are "recognising that people who come to watch a three-hour opera are people with money to spend, essentially older and more affluent", she explains, while stressing that live streamed events featuring the likes of Led Zeppelin, Robbie Williams and next month's live gig by Goldfrapp have shown that audiences for the sector in general are more diverse. Still, "there's a lot to be said for a cinema you want to spend time in, where you can have a bottle of wine and spend all evening."

Cinemas could develop greater local importance, "becoming more of a community space, rather than just a place for movies. Architects and town planners are recognising that they could regenerate high streets, rather than being in an out-of-town retail unit."

Home entertainment is still drawing audiences away from multiplexes. But the box office take for event cinema is growing rapidly.

"You're going to see business models changing and the new strategies that define it being adopted more and more by the mainstream" Keeping says. "In time the definition 'event cinema' will cease to be as important and it'll be known as content, like everything else."

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