Wednesday, 9 May 2012

ENO chief claims opera screenings don't work?

"ENO Chief claims opera screenings don't attract new audiences" screams a headline. ENO Artistic Director John Berry is quoted as saying "It is of no interest to me....“My time is consumed with making sure the performance is absolutely as good as it can be, and getting that right on the stage, that is hard enough, and that is my focus, on live work." 

Berry is responding to a claim by Sky Arts that its partnership with ENO between 2003 and 2009 had not generated one production for broadcast, and that "organisations like ENO are often fearful that to screen their work on TV would “cannibalise” their audience."  Let's look closer into the story.  ENO's heritage is theatre. It's strange that a stage magazine doesn't comprehend this.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a story about how the MET HD broadcasts are making mega-millions for that house. Read my analysis of that here.  (also many, many other posts on film and music). But why should that mean everyone else has to do as the Met does? There's no market sense in a flood of broadcasts for the sake of broadcast, even if film maximizes audiences and brings in money. Not every opera house is the same. The Met and the ENO don't compare. It's the Royal Opera House and the Opéra de Paris that are the Met's real competition. And things can be done differently from the Met, whose house style is expensive but downmarket..

What the ENO does best is adventurous, quirky and risk-taking : once it was the "powerhouse". The ENO doesn't have the budget for top rank European singers, so it focuses on stagecraft. Sometimes, that's been a disaster, with directors who don't understand music, but in principle, what the ENO does well is live theatre. There's no reason why it can't do film, but that's not a top priority.

The rationale on which the ENO was founded was that it would bring opera "to the people" in their own language. While Lord Harewood was around, that was sancrosanct. Maybe the English language gives the ENO a unique selling point, but nowadays when most people know core repertoire in Italian, German or French, it's more of a handicap. You won't get top singers bothering to learn a part all over again for less pay than they'd get in a big house. Even John Tomlinson has said he has to catch himself to sing in English instead of following his musical instincts. Though it's good for up and coming English singers, it does mean we get stuck sometimes with "lesser luminaries" whose main achievement is that they speak English.

But what is relevant about the ENO's heritage is the idea that opera should be direct and immediate, appealing to ordinary audiences who don't compare it to La Scala, Vienna or whatever, but enjoy themselves regardless. The ENO's natural allies are houses like Amsterdam, Theatre an der Wien, Aix, Lyon, possibly Frankfurt and Berlin, even Helsinki. Good productions, whatever their language, speak to people.

And most damning of all, filming opera isn't the same as watching opera, or even directing. It involves a whole new set oif technical skills which stage directors don't know because that's not their job. A good film director not only needs to know how to make a good film but also to understand bthe production he's working with and the music behind the opera. Absolutely, this isn't a skill that just anyone can pick up. It also doesn't come cheap. A house would need a whole new set of technicians and processing staff. Even if they don't do it in house it will cost big money to outsource. And even if they find good partners, that doesn't  mean good quality control or even "opera focus". Furthermore, cinema audiences by their very nature aren't as interested in art so much as in entertainment.  We could end up with the tail wagging the dog. That's fine for Megabucks Met, whose values may suit the hinterland but it's a dangerous gamble for smaller, more innovative houses.

Last year Sky Arts and the ENO did a joint venture around Mike Figgis's production of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia. There were lots of reasons why that wasn't a success. As a film buff, I enjoyed it as an experimental hybrid of film and theatre, with the opera encased within. But most people aren't film buffs and want to see opera as opera as opera, not as experiment. Good opera, yes, but opera that just happens to be translated on film, nothing more esoteric.

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