Live cinema relays – opera's friend or foe?

The fast-growing trend of bringing opera to your local multiplex can only be a good thing. Can’t it?

Jonas Kaufmann off-duty. For Simon Thomas it's all about the voice.
Opera star Jonas Kaufmann
© Dietmar Scholtz /

There have been rumbles in the press of late over the screening of operas in cinemas. To one grandee of British opera it "has got out of control", while English Touring Opera recently released the results of a survey deploring the fact that filmed performances don't succeed in bringing new audiences into the opera house.

Without having had the benefit of seeing the full report and looking at the methodology, margins of error, base rates and statistical significances for the ETO study, I'd hazard a guess that the headline findings, filtered through press offices and news desks, miss the point. I'm sure the expectation in putting opera performances into cinemas is more about reaching a wider audience than selling tickets for live events, just as the majority of people's appreciation of Herbert von Karajan has been acquired through listening to his huge legacy of recordings rather than from experiencing the old Nazi waving a stick on the podium. None of us can do the latter now, as he's been dead for 25 years, and the majority of the UK population can't easily attend the world's major opera houses.

Far be it from me to suggest any bias in a survey with a whole 234 in the sample, but it does make a convenient point for a touring opera company who are more likely to lose customers, who can see world-class opera at a lower price in the cinema, than to grow their audience. And they do have a point – the big players are cramping their style – and are to be applauded for fighting their corner.

Being hugely privileged, I get to see a great deal of opera live in the opera house, and I've hardly seen any of the recent rash of relays, so I've taken up the Royal Opera's invitation to watch Manon Lescaut at a central London cinema. It has a stellar cast of Jonas Kaufmann, Kristine Opolais and Christopher Maltman in a new production by Jonathan Kent of a work too rarely seen.

I wouldn't dare pass a comment on the appearance of an opera singer and I hope I won't be vilified on social media for merely observing that extreme close-ups of the German tenor are likely to elicit a deal of pleasure from many in the opera-loving community (see and decide for yourself). For me, of course, it's strictly about the voice and I can barely recall what the singer in question looks like (despite having had the further privilege of spending an hour or so in a small room with him, chatting about Verdi and other opera-related matters). I believe he's considered to look good on stage, whatever relevance to opera that may have, but I'll put that thought aside while watching.

One of the joys of live opera is hearing voices and orchestras without the mechanical roughness that has blighted musical theatre for decades now and relayed performances can suffer in this respect. Cinema sound systems can't compare with the natural sound of divine voices and the thrill of a live orchestra but as long as Puccini is not drowned out by the crunching of popcorn, sucking of fizzy drinks or, worse, slurp of juvenile lips in the back row, I find myself looking forward to the experience.

Details of the Royal Opera's forthcoming programme of cinema relays can be found here