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
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders