Hold the popcorn! Opera is heading for the multiplex

As Glyndebourne starts, its arias won't just be heard in Sussex. Hermione Eyre reports on a new cinema trend
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The Independent Culture

Opera is turning democratic and Glyndebourne – that bastion of rarefied entertainment – is getting in on the act. You can now turn up at your local cinema, wearing jeans, and see the biggest stars in landmark productions, all for the price of a regular film ticket. Yes, it's opera for the people.

Cinemas from Edinburgh to Ipswich are currently screening classics filmed this year at Milan's La Scala, culminating in June with Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. In September, the Royal Opera House will start beaming its performances into cinemas live across the world. And in October, the Everyman Cinema chain will recommence its sell-out season of broadcasts live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Glyndebourne (whose summer season starts today) is scheduling screenings into its repertoire after having a hit at Odeon cinemas last year with three operas, including Giulio Cesare. "I almost enjoyed the film more than the live production," raved one audience member. Is that picnic hamper starting to look redundant?

"Audiences love it and so do exhibitors," said Gemma Richardson, of the distributors Arts Alliance Media. She explained that cinemas can fill their houses during traditionally quiet periods, such as sunny afternoons. Screenings tend to be atmospheric. "People clap after most arias," said Theresa Valtin of Edinburgh's Filmhouse (where Donizetti's Maria Stuarda is shown today).

Everyman Cinemas up the ante (and the price, which is generally £25, but £36 for Wagner) with a glass of champagne to accompany the performance. "The whole experience is surprisingly intense," said one attendee, Lara, 28. "The camerawork gives you every angle you could want to see. It's like having all the best seats in the house."

Cinema screenings also come with added treats, such as behind-the-scenes footage from the Met. Cornered in her dressing room, soprano Michelle DeYoung confessed a penchant for protein shakes, while Natalie Dessay's torturous pronunciation of the word "Aldeburgh" caused ripples of hilarity through the audience of Peter Grimes.

The revolution in opera has been a long time in the making. Chris Millard, of the Royal Opera House, said: "We couldn't do it before we had the right sound quality." Now everything is filmed in high definition (HD), and shown in 2K (high resolution) digital cinemas, together with surround sound. The next hurdle was the royalties. "Negotiating the rights with all the various unions has taken two or three years," Mr Millard said. "But most of the artists see the value of this. They understand they're reaching a new, worldwide audience."

Live Met screenings are seen by as many as a million people simultaneously worldwide. The Royal Opera House's recent acquisition of the production company Opus Arte should mean that they will soon reach similar numbers.

But some companies are resisting the cinema revolution. "We're not going in that direction at all," said Jane Livingstone, the head of press at English National Opera. "We do podcasts and interviews, but when it comes to the performance, we want people to experience that live."

Some (anonymous) opera critics feel the same. "What singer wants to have a camera up their nose? Singing is strenuous work," said one, who added: "I don't want to pour scorn, but isn't there something a bit sad about sitting in Harlesden pretending you're at the Met?"

Thousands of opera cineastes would beg to differ.

For dates, go to www.artsalliancemedia.com