Stage performance on screen: Is it to be or not to be for the English National Opera?

ENO artistic director appears to have experience a fiscal Christmas epiphany

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The Independent Online

Screening stage performances in the multiplex has been one of the great successes of recent times. Several of our big companies, including the Royal Opera, Royal Ballet and National Theatre, are at it. So it was fitting that the end of this year has seen English National Opera decide to screen its shows. ENO artistic director John Berry said: “ENO’s entry into cinemas will be as distinctive as our live work in the theatre, creating a truly cinematic experience....I believe that the cinema broadcasts will enable many more people to enjoy the excitement and passion of ENO’s work...”

But wait a minute. Deep in the memory something stirs. Who was it who declared controversially but unequivocally in May 2012: “This obsession about putting work out into the cinema can distract from making amazing quality work. It is of no interest to me. It is not our priority. It doesn’t create new audiences either.”

Good heavens. It was the same John Berry. Actually I’m rather an admirer of Mr Berry and the brilliant work he has done at ENO. But this is quite a change of mind. How can he be convinced in 2012 that a cinema screening “doesn’t create new audiences”, but certain in 2013 that “it will enable more people to enjoy ENO’s work.” It’s all very strange. Was there some sort of epiphany that occurred? Perhaps it was a fiscal epiphany, with someone drawing to his attention that New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which pioneered screenings of performances in cinemas, makes 11m dollars profit a year.

This is the time of year to be charitable. So let us allow our arts grandees to change their minds, even in spectacular style. But as it happens, I think John Berry had some right on his side when he spoke out, unfashionably and against current cultural thinking, last year. Good and successful as these multiplex screenings are, they do not have the magic and electricity of witnessing a live stage performance. Perhaps more importantly, they deflect attention from the lack of touring in Britain by publicly funded companies like the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet. How easy it is to say that you are reaching audiences  across the country, when what you mean is in cinemas rather than by touring.

Come to think of it, English National Opera is another of those publicly funded “national” companies that does no touring whatsoever. Is the belated entry into the “cinematic experience”, and the spectacular change of mind, realisation that this can be a substitute for touring? It isn’t. The first priority of our national companies must be to be seen, and seen live, by more of the taxpayers who fund them. The “cinematic experience” is an extra, a wonderful extra, but still an extra.

Bonuses and fundraising

One fact in a story this week about pay rises for gallery directors rather intrigued me. A gallery spokesman said that some of the rise was due to “bonuses against fundraising” which are “quite normal in the cultural sector.” I’d say the cultural sector has kept this rather quiet. Indeed, the cultural sector, and those at the top of it, normally say privately how wearying it is to spend so much time fundraising, instead of working on exhibitions, plays, operas and the like. They never mention these bonuses. One would have thought that fundraising, the norm in the cultural sector for decades now, would be seen as part of the job and bonus-free. Perhaps the cultural sector could offer clarification.

Mistletoe and Cliff

After artist Grayson Perry had outed Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota as a Cliff Richard fan in his Reith lecture, I speculated on the cosy evenings Sir Nicholas must spend at home listening to Summer Holiday and Bachelor Boy at the end of a hard day’s viewing of conceptualist art. This week Sir Nicholas hosted the annual Tate Christmas lunch for the press, always an excellent occasion. When he made his speech, he took with him to the stage a vintage, 1970s portable record player and proceeded to play to the assembled guests Cliff Richard’s former Christmas hit, Mistletoe and Wine. Fortunately Sir Nicholas is an arbiter, not a follower, of fashion as this was the very week that Mistletoe and Wine was voted the second worst Christmas hit ever — whisper it not in the Tate, but Sir Cliff also occupied first place). Some might think that Sir Nicholas was enjoying a good-natured festive joke in playing the song in the august surroundings of Tate Britain. But I think not. I suspect this is something he has been dying to do for years, and his ambition is now fulfilled. To him, all art lovers, and even all Cliff-lovers, a very happy Christmas and New Year.