Magazine article The Spectator

Virtual Trip to the Opera

Magazine article The Spectator

Virtual Trip to the Opera

Article excerpt

'Having every best seat in the house' is how some describe seeing opera live on screen, and recently we've had the opportunity of seeing the nuts and bolts backstage, too. It was a bold initiative of English National Opera and Sky Arts to take the cameras behind the scenes on the first night of Jonathan Miller's new production of La boheme for Sky Arts 1, while simultaneously broadcasting the opera itself live on Sky Arts 2, and it was quite a challenge for the backstage crew: how do you keep your audience gripped for two and a half hours when all the real action is happening the other side of the set? Jonathan Miller himself was less than enthusiastic at the prospect: 'It wasn't my idea, ' he commented, somewhat testily, hoping quite understandably that the television audience wasn't going to be continually switching over to check what was brewing behind the scenes. But for those of us tuned in backstage for the duration there was hardly a dull moment as we hovered in the wings, swerved through cramped corridors between artists' dressing rooms and into the cavernous recesses of the stage in pursuit of the various players in this particular drama.

Sky presenter Penny Morris was in the driving seat, conducting a series of enthusiastic, if slightly dizzy, interviews with anyone happy to talk to her: singers, who gamely chatted to camera as wigs were tweaked and beards adjusted, right up to their call on stage; children in the chorus, thrilled at a late night-out and a party afterwards; offstage chorus master and orchestral players, relieved that no untoward incidents - a horse apparently once fell on to a percussionist in the pit - had so far marred the evening; dressers and make-up girls applying the finishing touches, stage managers cueing lighting and singers on and off; and stagehands cranking the ingeniously interlocking set into action. Gliding silently through this well-rehearsed melee like a ghost was Miller, offering a word here, a hug there, a laconic shrug of the shoulders. There were few great revelations - except, for me, the fact that all that paper snow is methodically scattered by hand from the gantry rather than coming out of some mythical snowmachine - but it conveyed with warmth the human background to this complex and finely calibrated opera machine.

The first night of any new production is a hive of anticipation; for a production as keenly anticipated as this, and one being broadcast in the round, as it were, for the very first time, the stakes were high. The ENO claim that feedback has been positive on all fronts, so will they repeat the experiment? Was the investment worthwhile? Under artistic director John Berry they are continually seeking new ways of engaging people, so, yes, if they can find broadcasters like Sky Arts willing to share the risks. It does mark a turning point in the way opera is broadcast, and may appeal to an audience rather different from those who stream into the cinemas for Met Opera Live in HD screenings.

The Metropolitan Opera's live broadcasts by satellite into cinemas on Saturdays, launched in 2006, have certainly been a wild success, with the million-ticket mark just passed. The 2008-9 season of 11 operas goes to almost 800 venues worldwide and, with tickets in the UK at £25, the whole season is largely booked out in advance up and down the country, as we found when we tried - too late, alas - to get to the recent screening in Norwich of Lucia di Lammermoor. …

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