This afternoon I've been listening to the Christmas Picturehouses Podcast. The most startlingly thing to hear (apart from a presenter-exchange of Christmas presents mainly featuring Sellotape) was that the best performing film at the Picturehouses chain wasn't a film at all, but an opera.
The opera-in-cinema phenomenon, as The Guardian's Charlotte Higgins calls it, is an interesting development. Why has it happened? Well, no doubt people want to see operatic productions from New York's Metropolitan Opera House (Picturehouses were showing a relay of Verdi's Don Carlo) without the inconvenience of having to travel to and from America. Equally, watching the production on a big screen means that one can actually see clearly what's happening on stage. There's no need to fiddle with opera glasses or compete with view-obstructive large people with coughs at the back of the amphitheatre. Above all of course, one can get the experience live and with high quality digital surround-sound.
Given that BBC Radio 3 has been relaying Met productions for a long time now it would seem that the convenience of live, high audio-visual quality streaming is the principal reason for the current explosion of interest. Principal but not exclusive. Aware of the need to develop audiences, not only the Met but also the National Theatre and Glyndebourne have been using the relay development. London's Royal Opera have an ambitious 3D project in the pipeline for next year, to follow their own not-so-much-in-as-out-of house big screen event relays.
Of course, the technology is there to allow people to watch opera productions at home - I did last week, watching a webcast of Parsifal from the Amsterdam's Concertgebouw. However, the quality of connection, picture and sound are all dependant on domestic equipment and settings and the production (Radio 4 for Dutch Radio Orchestra and Chorus) take no revenue away from such an event. This is another reason why opera companies both here and abroad are making their productions available for remote auditoria consumption (if you like), as a way of increasing revenue. As David Pickard also notes to Charlotte Higgins, "This is partly about taking artistic control of our own material", companies doing with video recording what is already being done very successfully in audio recording. Dedicated third party distributors with paywalls already operate in the midst of this, such as Opus Arte and Medici TV (in exactly the same way as MUBI.com or Curzon Cinemas On Demand do for film).
The downside, apart from this not being in the audience attending a live, i.e. acoustic performance is that the independent cinemas that have undertaken to show such relays will often have to use two slots to accommodate an opera (Don Carlo was advertised as 300 mins long). Prices reflect this so revenue is not the principal issue. Rather, the space to accommodate other independent film which may rely on the independent chains for a public screening becomes limited. I don't see this as a drastic problem though, given that the relays are a unique simulcast, a one off.
The rise of opera in the cinema is a largely happy coincidence of audience development and technology. It's worth noting that there's a third issue, the middle ground of experience: wanting to get out of the living room to be part of a modest, dedicated audience in a modern auditorium, rather than the great barns of theatres that the full-time professional companies are obliged to perform in.
I think I may give La Fanciulla del West a go at my local in a few weeks to see if it's worth it. In the meantime I'm ever-more eagerly awaiting this opera-as-film.