Live opera in cinemas? No way, says ENO

Artistic director of English National Opera rails against popular medium

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The Independent Culture

The artistic director of the English National Opera, John Berry, has startled counterparts by claiming the artform is harming itself by screening live performances at cinemas.

Ignoring widespread praise for the increasing trend of opening up opera and theatre to the masses, Mr Berry declared it was "of no interest to me".

"If opera in cinema becomes the main event and not the live work on stage, we feel that is not a step forward but a step back," he said, arguing that "this obsession about putting work out into the cinema can distract from making amazing quality work". Speaking to The Stage newspaper, he added: "It is not a priority. It doesn't create new audiences either."

The Royal Opera House (ROH) and the National Theatre, which have both embraced the practice, hit back at the criticism yesterday. Tony Hall, the chief executive of the ROH, said such initiatives were "an enormous opportunity to open the work up to new people" and "positions arts in this country on a global stage".

Asked about Mr Berry's comments, he said: "I think differently. I understand what John is saying, but we're going down a different route... It's going to get bigger."

He added: "I agree that it is far better for people to come and experience the productions live, but why deny people who can't make it the chance to see it? Not everyone can afford to come to London to watch ballet or an opera."

The Royal Opera House performance of Rigoletto this year reached an audience of 13,500 around the UK through cinemas. In September, the ROH announced 10 operas and ballets would be shown in more than 700 cinemas during the 2011/12 season.

The move to beam live performances directly into cinemas was led by the New York Metropolitan Opera, which is now believed to be generating $12m (£7.4m) a year from ticket sales.

David Sabel, the head of digital media at the National Theatre and producer of works for its cinema arm, NT Live, said: "It is never a replacement of the live experience, but even with tours, there are only so many people who can see the show. Our main mission is to bring the shows to more UK taxpayers."

He said the experience of watching performances in a cinema rather than on television "still offers a shared experience. They laugh along with the audience and applaud at the end."

NT shows included Phèdre, starring Helen Mirren, She Stoops to Conquer and Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, which was seen by 100,000 people worldwide.

The National is planning similar screenings for up to eight productions next year. Cinema chains and independents have been keen to show the works as an alternative to films.