Report by Joe Attard, 7 June 2015

In this highly-productive conservation (which focused primarily on the various ‘live’ cinema initiatives carried out by major opera companies), we addressed the following:

• Are we building a new audience or are we simply accruing more tickets from the exiting core audience (or indeed, a smaller cross-section of it)? While extant data is limited at this juncture, the latter appears to be the case - although a question mark lingers over whether this need remain so (as I shall delineate).

• What is the impact of livestreaming on the opera ecology? One of the most substantial controversies facing livestreaming is that it presents regional and touring companies with new competition; thus deterring promoters and ‘stealing’ physical audiences away from opera houses. It is difficult to determine the validity of these concerns, but it is apparent that they are a concern, particularly for small companies.

• A related point is the issue of international access. While its impact on opera at a local/national level is questionable, it is felt that livestreaming certainly facilitates enhanced availability of world class opera at an international level.

• It was felt that the repertoire for relays tends to favour the ‘canon,’ where it could be a powerful tool for legitimising newer works. A difficulty at this stage is the significant expense of conducting a relay (approximately £100,000 additional to the cost of crafting an opera). This understandably results in a degree of conservatism on the part of companies who conduct live streams.

• Livestreaming, by bringing opera into a more ‘populist’ context, could potentially have the effect of bringing opera greater visibility, if only in the form of advertisments etc.

• Extant data plus anecdotal impressions suggest that opera in the cinema is attractive to many audiences on account of its relative informality and accessibility (in terms of up-front cost) compared to the opera house. However, this in turn raises the concern of livestreaming threatening the viability of ‘traditional’ opera houses in the coming decades.

• Opera's brand challenge (its general perception as an elite form) is, in some ways, maximally expressed in its translation to cinema and apparent inability to court new audiences through this new exhibition context.

• There is an issue regarding the division of royalties after livecasts. The various agents and actors involved in the process (the opera house, the cinema partner, third parties like Arts Alliance, the promoter etc.) means that artists receive a relatively small cut of these highly popular events. Although, as has been pointed out, artists working at the kinds of major institutions that tend to conduct such relays are typically fairly well-compensated regardless.

• It is suggested that, as a means of extending reach, livecasting is preferrable to companies such as the Royal Opera House going on tour (!)

• It is evident that audiences value the experience of liveness provided by relays (though generally not as much as the physically co-present experience of the opera house itself). This is evident in the relatively poor performance of the recorded ‘Encore’ screenings of relays (sold at a greatly-reduced price) and qualitative impressions from attendees about the thrill of possible failure.

• The ‘insight films’ incorporated into live relays enjoyed a mixed reception from the group (at best). The integration of social media also receives a tepid response.

• The ‘double-direction’ of livestreaming came under scrutiny, in particular the question of shot-choice and the ‘tongue and teeth problem’ (where close-ups of singers in extremis are not especially attractive). This is a problem not encountered by ballet, for example, which does seem to be more apt at attracting new audiences through livecasting. As a corollary, it is noted that the language of cinema provides all attendees at a relay with the ‘best seat in the house.’

• Suggested that better regulation of relay scheduling might mitigate the problem of competition between livecast productions from major companies and local companies. At present, it appears that opera institutions are more concerned with their own success rather than co-operatively investing in the future of the art form.

• There is a general impression that one cannot ‘put the genie back in the bottle’ by ‘uninventing the tech.’ Like them or not, relays are here to stay. The only question is whether their impact on opera as a form should be our focus, or whether the successes and limitations of livecasting are predicated upon root issues for opera more generally: a limited repertoire, lack of investment in new work, an aging core audience, problems with image and perceptions of ‘elitism,’ scepticism over ‘democratisation’ etc.

• In conclusion, investing in livestreaming in isolation will not provide opera with a future. Investing in opera itself will make livestreaming a valuable tool for ensuring its survival.


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