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
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
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.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral