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Fancy a movie? Let's go to the opera...

Cinema relays are a revolution in broadening access to theatre, and 40% of the audiences are for opera

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A scene from Prokofiev's War and Peace in an earlier Mariinsky Opera production
© Mariinsky Theatre

It's a novelty that's helping opera earn its funding as well as its keep. Cinema relays allow companies to raise their profile and increase revenue, while widening their reach and performing a public service at the same time. Thanks to the silver screen, the buzz of fresh new opera work is accessible to thousands who used to be excluded from joining in.

Not everyone is convinced, but it's hard to see the naysayers' point. Yes, there can be sound issues as untrained digital projectionists blast Turandot through their speakers as though it were a Transformers movie. Yes, the viewer is at the mercy of video directors who can point the camera wherever they please without reference to the original creative vision. The process isn't perfect yet but that's not a reason to rubbish it. Anyway, it's here to stay.

Major companies who fail to participate in the access revolution risk becoming an irrelevance – purveyors of niche products to a small coterie of enthusiasts – which explains why even the long-resistant English National Opera has now signed up and established its own ENO Screen. At last audiences beyond the south-east are able to glimpse the work of a company whose very name – the first two words of it at least – used to smack of irony to non-Londoners.

Two major relays this week – and one of them is free

The big screen phenomenon now has such momentum that wherever you live in the UK you're never far from an opera house. There are two major experiences available this week alone – and one of them is free.

A BP Big Screen showing of Puccini's La rondine in 2013 (Royal Opera)
© ROH/Simon Magill

John Copley's evergreen production of La bohème will be relayed tonight (15 July) onto big screens all over Britain, from Aberdeen to Swansea, and it won't cost you a penny to attend thanks to the Royal Opera's partnership with BP. So much for elitism!

A world-class company led by Angela Gheorghiu as Mimì and Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolfo is yours for the asking; there's a promising weather forecast for this evening, so just turn up.

Alternatively, hang on for Verdi's Rigoletto, which the Royal Opera is beaming out onto BP Big Screens on 17 September. Find a full list of open-air venues here.

'a mouthwatering prospect'

This week there's exciting news from abroad too. On Wednesday 16 July the Mariinsky Opera makes its UK cinema debut with a relay of Prokofiev's too-rarely-seen War and Peace in Graham Vick's brand-new production. It's a mouth-watering prospect that ought to play extremely well on the big screen, and the star of Vick's recent Eugene Onegin for Glyndebourne, Andrei Bondarenko, has hotfooted it to St Petersberg in order to sing Prince Andrei opposite Operalia winner Aida Garifullina as Natasha. Valery Gergiev conducts.

Factor in annual relays from Glyndebourne on the big and small screens, which include generous amounts of live streaming throughout the season, and of course the trailblazing Metropolitan Opera's programme of ten operas direct from New York each year in its Live in HD series, and the opera calendar starts to look healthy wherever you live. You'll rarely pay over the odds for it: around £15 is the norm. The only risk is overkill – and that, surely, is a fault on the right side.