At first glance English National Opera's announcement that it is joining forces with Altive Media on a new initiative to beam its productions into cinemas seems innocuous enough; after all, the company is one of the last major houses to relay its work to the world's multiplexes. But the newsworthiness of today's statement is less about where it's heading to than where it's coming from.
The creation of ENO Screen is a massive volte-face for the company. In an interview with The Stage only last year, Artistic Director John Berry scorned the very idea of screening ENO performances. "This obsession about putting work out into the cinema can distract from making amazing quality work," he declared. "It's of no interest to me. It's not a priority. It doesn't create new audiences either."
The company's disturbing recent balance sheet and this season's poor audiences for panned productions of Fidelio and Die Fledermaus suggest that Berry's régime is doing pretty well on its own terms at failing to create new audiences – while the big boys of Covent Garden, which has readily embraced the cinematic experiment, have been packing 'em in for strong new British operas (Written on Skin, Anna Nicole, The Minotaur) and for challenging repertoire such as Elektra.
Baldly put, ENO – whose annual funding from Arts Council England isn't far shy of £18m a year – is, according to its agreed mission statement, "committed to developing new audiences for opera through English language performances which are affordable and accessible to everyone". For a company with no touring programme and no outreach activity to speak of, and with ticket prices that have risen steeply this year, dissemination by new media is one of the ways by which it can begin to honour this ideal.
It is puzzling that a leader as ostensibly cutting-edge as Berry should have been so backward in coming forward where 21st-century technology is concerned, but his conversion is sure to be welcomed by audiences far and wide who would otherwise never get to glimpse the company at its considerable best.
Speaking of the new venture, Berry now says: "ENO's entry into cinemas will be as distinctive as our live work in the theatre, creating a truly cinematic experience. Our productions are already seen worldwide in more than 30 cities and I believe that the cinema broadcasts will enable many more people to enjoy the excitement and passion of ENO's work and will encourage those visiting London to come to the theatre and see an ENO opera first hand."
ENO Screen has chosen its launch operas shrewdly, with live screenings on 23 February 2014 of David Alden's award-winning production of Britten's Peter Grimes starring Stuart Skelton, followed in June by a new production of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini by Terry Gilliam, who gave the company one of its biggest recent successes with his staging of The Damnation of Faust. From autumn 2014, in line with most other companies active in this field, live relays will extend to five or six productions per season.
Read more about ENO Screen here