Why arias in the multiplex fall flat

Screening operas at cinemas is helping to bolster the popularity of this frail art form, but it's no substitute for the emotional intensity, acoustic quality and excitement of live drama

Last year, I attended a performance of Handel's opera Rodelinda. With fewer than 200 seats in the venue there was no lengthy climb up to the balcony, no seat without a perfect view. And with no formal etiquette we dressed as we liked, and came and went as we pleased. Which was lucky, because about an hour into the performance I did something I've never done before: I walked out and didn't come back. I doubt the performers took offence; they were 3,000 miles away in New York, and I was in acoustic exile in an art-house cinema in East London.

The Royal Opera has recently launched its second live cinema season. Nine productions will screen in some 900 cinemas across 32 countries. Vast figures for a cultural phenomenon still in its infancy, and dwarfed by New York's Metropolitan Opera, whose 2012/13 season will reach an astonishing 1,500 screens in no fewer than 46 nations – a global operatic empire that extends from Columbia to Croatia, Egypt to Ecuador. Even Glyndebourne, that bastion of cultural conservatism, first screened its festival operas in UK cinemas in 2007.

Cinema, the cry goes up on all sides, is the future of opera. This is the technological crutch that can prop up an increasingly frail art-form, the digital panacea that can restore life to a cultural anachronism. Statistically the figures seem to bear this out. The Financial Times recently estimated the Met's annual income from its screenings at $11 million, and last year their worldwide audience numbers reached around 3 million. But as so many operatic heroes learn, riches always come at price. So what is the cost of opera's cinematic double-life?

Whether we think of opera in terms of Wagner's grandiose Gesamkunstwerk (a total work of art) or, as Franco Zeffirelli put it, "... a planet where the muses work together, join hands and celebrate all the arts", there's no denying the unique breadth of a genre that binds ear, eye and mind into a single sensory experience. "Immersive" might be the latest and most fashionable buzzword for visual and performance arts, but opera has been offering this all-encompassing artistic stimulation for more than 400 years, with 3D as standard – no special glasses required. When we take this sprawling, generous art-form and flatten it into the confines of a cinema screen we rob it of its live excitement, and of life itself.

In an age in which we digest more and more of our culture digitally, it's vital that we preserve public rituals of performance. Because they are rituals, these trips to Covent Garden or the Coliseum, where you feel the breath of a climactic chorus on your face, where the fragile stillness of an aria can hush an audience of 2,000. Whatever we experience in this shared, public space is amplified a thousand-fold by the reactions of those around us, whether on stage or off. There's an energy, a risk, to this nightly act of creation that is impossible to simulate. We already have opera singers translated into 3D cinematic doubles, but until these shadowy doppelgangers can reach out and touch us physically, they can't truly hope to emotionally either.

In outsourcing opera to cinemas, we leave a demanding art-form at the mercy of second-rate sound-systems and flat acoustics that simply can't carry the weight of singers trained to fill huge halls without amplification. These broadcasts privilege the lower voices – bass, contralto – over sopranos and tenors, whose higher registers often jangle or distort in delivery. Voices also lose much of their personality when parcelled up into digital formats, a phenomenon the recording industry has already numbed us to.

Would I advise someone curious about opera to experience it for the first time at a Met screening? Never. Opera broadcasts are to live opera as Walt Disney's original fantasy of Epcot was to America; everything might be visually tidier, more convenient, more heightened in close-up, but it's also hollow – a cartoonish reality. Opera companies claim their broadcasts will attract a new audience, enticing the young and culturally timid where traditional methods have failed. A 2008 survey by OPERA America however identified just 5 per cent of the audience for Met live broadcasts as those who had never been to live opera. The bulk of the ticket-holders were those "moderate and frequent opera-goers" you'd see most weeks in the Met's own stalls, or those of opera houses across the world.

This raises the more practical side of opera in cinema. For many regional opera fans, or those in remote areas, the opportunity to see live opera is small, and these broadcasts tap in to an audience for opera that might not otherwise exist. It's a compelling argument, but one whose very strength may be the downfall of opera. What happens when digital audiences routinely outnumber live ones? What happens when cinema screenings subsidise performances, as they are beginning to do? Surely the temptation will be to start catering to this new format, designing productions around what works best in the new medium, casting according to Hollywood's standards rather than musical ones. David Sabel, head of digital media at National Theatre live, recently referred to audiences at the National Theatre for live-broadcast performances as "effectively a 'studio' audience" – a dangerous precedent and one echoed in the BBC Proms' acoustic favouring of radio listeners over those in the Royal Albert Hall.

English National Opera's artistic director John Berry spoke this year of his fear that broadcasting opera in cinema would "distract from making amazing quality work". His rare and avowed lack of interest in the phenomenon typifies a company determined to reform opera from within rather than risk damaging its essential fabric through the cultural grafting of one genre onto another.

To those who say that opera must move with the times, I respond that it absolutely must. So let's bring the innovations of cinema into the opera house itself. If we follow the lead of director-auteurs like Terry Gilliam, David Bosch and Peter Sellars, we can create an even grander, more all-embracing Gesamkunstwerk than even Wagner could conceive. Rather than let technology dilute the essence of opera let it enhance it, use it to grow the genre into something recognisably contemporary yet authentically operatic.

Alongside this we must revisit that neglected creature the opera-film. Joseph Losey's Don Giovanni, Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Flute and Zeffirelli's La Traviata: these are as far from the sanitised, compromised opera broadcasts as can be imagined, a genuine hybrid of art-forms that amplifies opera through cinema and cinema through opera. Isn't that what the digital age is all about?

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker