Online opportunities and cinema annoyances

Q: There’s so much opera now available online, much of it free. How will you respond to that and can you monetise what you do?

JC: Most companies have put a fair bit online, mostly archive productions. I’ve really enjoyed a lot of Met archive productions that are really old with really fantastic singers, although I’m not much inclined to sit at my computer screen and see a whole opera production, I’m not hooked up enough to have great speakers and all that stuff.

For us, I’ve tried to think about this not in a negative way as a threat to live performance but to think positively: What does this mean that we can do that we wouldn’t otherwise do? What kind of excellence can we try for online? So we’ve experimented with online programming which is really different from what we’ve done on stage.

Take Shostakovich’s Sonnets of Michelangelo, a 45-minute song cycle which is one of the crowning glories of his career, probably the most important composer of the 20th century in many ways. If I were to put it on in some of our regional theatres, I could probably clear the theatre pretty quickly, or not have that many attenders—it would probably be less than a hundred. And if you have less than a hundred, that theatre is not going to make enough money and they won’t want you to come back. That’s the way this runs, we don’t get to choose everything.

But it did give us an opportunity to seek out an international audience that’s at home, that might try something different, and not having to buy a ticket removes a significant barrier for a number of people. (Some of the other programming was around 20 minutes. We did a bit of research, which we found to be optimum.) It gave us a chance to create. I really loved last year working on Machaut [Guillaume de 1300–77], a really great poet and composer, who nobody listens to, a few Oxbridge graduates, and to stage his work in an interesting place with wonderful musicians. That was such a treat and it will be up there for a long time.

For me it created an opportunity for a parallel line of programming which was perhaps more daring, and certainly different, and which could open doors for people who think that opera in a theatre was not for them.

Q: Will people be willing to pay for that?

JC: I’m no expert. I think so. The first six or eight films we made were put online on a platform that is a pay-per-view as an experiment. The next really big volume of work, the singing lessons, the programme for young people, the really fantastic series of programmes for people with learning difficulties, were all made to be free, thinking of this pandemic and reach new people, and maybe get them to like the idea of opera.

Q: Cinema relays are restarting as you are about to go on the road? A force for good or ill?

JC: We haven’t done enough research on the subject. There’s a lot of potential for good because in a lot of places where they’re just not going to get live opera, it’s giving access to productions often with celebrity performers with a very high degree of excellence.

Many opera attenders have developed hearing impairment, and in the cinema the dials are tweaked, so the voices always sound louder than the orchestra. That’s great, the parking is convenient whereas a lot of theatres are in the centre of town, the chairs are all comfortable, it’s turned up really loud.

I tell you really bluntly what’s not good is when you are performing in a town and there’s only going to be those live performances there in that whole year and there’s a cinema relay on the same day. That’s must terrible. And with cinema there’s a choice of not having it on that day but on the encore day so that they are not clashing with live performance, and in fact they support live performance.

But both those who broadcast and the cinemas really don’t want to do the work to see that that happens, so I think of it rather like the game Battleships because our tour dates are always set long before the cinema dates are set, then we look at the bombs are just going to fall. And it means that for people with just modest provision of opera—live opera, which is an absolutely different thing from opera in the cinema—both good but different—it’s just nonsensical when they clash. And it does despoil box office.

Q: Have cinema relays changed people’s perceptions of what opera should look like, for example that there are not so many short, fat tenors as heroic lovers?

JC: I bet people do think about having their glamorous stars on the nights they are filmed. I haven’t observed that but it may be the case.

I think there is another myth that people used to just stand and sing and not act. It’s just not true. People have always acted in opera performance and acted as well as theatre actors act. But it’s different, and there have been different factions in acting, as in the theatre.