So opera is the plaything of the élite? Try telling that to movie-goers. It never was, of course – and if anyone doubts it, throw some audience figures at them. Showing for one night only, this year's Royal Opera House Live Cinema Season drew over 33,000 people into UK cinemas for La bohème and a thousand more for Nabucco. Cinema relays are the outreach marvel of our age.
The Metropolitan Opera in New York started it all decades ago with worldwide radio broadcasts of their Saturday matinée series – an enterprise that continues to this day and entails an improbably early New York start to allow for global coverage. The move into cinemas was a natural extension of this, and the Met's ten-opera ‘Live in HD' season for 2013-14 kicks off on 5 October with Eugene Onegin. Catch it at one of the 200-odd picture houses from Yeovil to York that bring America's leading opera house to our shores.
The ROH followed suit three years ago, dipping a tentative toe in the water with just three titles on 200 screens. To show how fast things change in the digital age, this year they're rivalling their transatlantic counterparts with no fewer than ten shows (five each of opera and ballet) on a thousand screens in 40 countries, including six new productions.
Launching the new season, the Royal Opera's Music Director Sir Antonio Pappano brimmed with enthusiasm. "It's important to share these performances for geographical reasons alone, to reach people who would not otherwise have access to our work.
"You feel you have the best seat in the house. I'm not saying it's better than seeing it live, but you certainly get closer to the performers and you see how detailed their work actually is.
"Reaching out is a core part of our work and as important as what we do on the main stage. The possibilities of digital media have grown and, thanks to the support of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, we've joined in the party."
Alongside Pappano were the Royal Ballet's Principal Guest Artist Carlos Acosta (whose new production of Don Quixote will be broadcast in cinemas on 16 October) and American tenor Bryan Hymel, himself no stranger to the global transmission phenomenon. He'll be appearing in Verdi's Les Vêpres siciliennes, which hits the multiplexes on Monday 4 November.
Hymel knows the sensation of being watched in close-up by thousands of people all over the world. "It turns up the pressure. You are constantly aware of it. It keeps you mindful of the details – the eyes, the face – and those three or four cameras in the house are forever in your mind before you go for a high note."
The new ROH Cinema Live season opened in spectacular fashion on 17 September with Puccini's Turandot. If you missed that there are still nine dates to go, including brand-new productions of Wagner's Parsifal, Mozart's Don Giovanni and Puccini's Manon Lescaut as well as Les Vêpres siciliennes. Visually the experience will be sensational; as for sound quality, you're in the hands of your local digital projectionist.
Grab a tub of popcorn and join the élite!
**Find out more about the Royal Opera House Live Cinema Season here
**Find out more about the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD here