A Night at the Virtual Opera
Last Monday I went to the Royal Opera House. I didn’t dress up, and I had one of the best seats in the house for the princely sum of £12.50. And I didn’t even have to leave Edinburgh. I was, of course, at a screening of ‘event cinema’, in this case, a new production of Bellini’s ‘Norma’.
The venue was the Odeon in Lothian Road. One of the interesting aspects of the continuing growth of ‘event cinema’—live or ‘encore’ relays of music, dance, drama and the visual arts—is that it’s in no way confined to arthouse cinemas and arts venues; the multiplexes have come on board in a big way. ‘Norma’ was already sold out at the Cameo Cinema, just a couple of hundred yards from the Odeon, and a pioneer in event cinema programming. So it’s not surprising that there were about 50 of us in the auditorium at the Odeon, which I would have thought would have been a good audience for any screening there on a Monday evening. But ‘Norma’ was also showing across town at the Vue Omni and, for all I know, at some or all of the edge-of-town multiplexes as well.
The staff at the Odeon are clearly keen to build an audience for these screenings. We were handed a programme by an usher as our tickets were checked, and told ‘you’re in for a dramatic evening!’ (which was true), and another member of staff, armed with a microphone, gave us a warm welcome before the relay started, and encouraged us to come back for future screenings. At the interval a trolley was rolled out with, alongside the usual ice creams, mini-bottles of Prosecco. Bless.
I’m always surprised to find that there are both cinema-goers and arts aficionados who not only have never been to an ‘event cinema’ screening, but are not even sure what it’s like. I still get asked, for example, if it’s just a single, static camera. So, for any readers who’re in that category, let me sum up my experience.
First, the seats are extremely comfortable and the sightlines are excellent. The HD projection is crystal clear and the sound is remarkably full and convincing. The subtitles are easily readable but small enough to be ignored. The introductions and the interval chats range from the cringingly gushing to the genuinely informative, especially when conductor Antonio Pappano is talking about the music.
The key aspect, of course, is the camerawork. Relays like this can use between 6 and 8 different cameras, and the director is usually working from a carefully crafted shooting script based on close prior observation, and where possible full camera rehearsals. The occasionally fluffed camera movement reminds you that this is still, to some extent, being caught ‘on the wing’, but most of the time the camerawork is fluent and unobtrusive. But it does two crucial things. It inevitably offers us an interpretation of the performance because it is the director’s choice as to what we see at any given moment; our eyes are not free to roam across the full stage picture. For some, that is the medium’s chief drawback. But it also means that our attention is drawn to details, actions, expressions that would be easily missed by—or perhaps even not fully visible to—those in the audience at the actual performance.
What this really means is that a cinema relay of a performance is not a replacement of that performance, it is something sui generis. I was thrilled and excited by ‘Norma’. The singing was magnificent, the staging was intriguing, and the filming drew me into the heart of the action and of the passionate, life or death emotions. I genuinely believe that I could not have enjoyed the experience more had I been sitting in the Royal Opera House itself. I might have enjoyed it as much, but for different reasons. I would have been stimulated by the atmosphere (though perhaps put off by the sense that some, at least, in the audience were there more for social than musical reasons), and I would have felt a special auditory thrill in response to such superb singing, but I might have had a restricted view, a neighbour with irritating habits, and a slight feeling of discomfort from being dressed up for the occasion. As several writers have already noted, ‘event cinema’ is becoming an artform of its own. I’ve elsewhere compared it to the early days of television, when viewers had to become used to the idea that this was neither a film in a box nor radio with pictures, but something else.
In the case of ‘Norma’, there is one additional intriguing aspect. Almost uniformly the London critics disliked the production, and indeed it was apparently booed on the opening night. Now, it’s certainly not a conventional production: the Catalan director Alex Ollé has replaced the Druidism of the original with a fanatical modern sect that is very like, but not identical to, aspects of the Catholic Church. The ‘sacred grove’ of the original is made up of a forest of hundreds of crucifixes. The High Priestess Norma is dressed like a modern day bishop—something that will be more shocking in the director’s home country than in Anglican circles! The critics seem to have found this shift confusing, wrong-headed or excessive.
Now, for me and for the friends I was with, in the cinema in Edinburgh, the production was almost completely comprehensible and persuasive, and was much more dramatically pointed than would have been a faithful evocation of the world of 1st century AD Gaul. Was this because we had had the advantage of hearing the stage director explain his approach, and of seeing how the camera director presented that vision to us? In that respect, were we actually better off than the audience in the Royal Opera House?
Event Cinema is not going to go away: rather, it’s going to continue to grow. At many venues the entire New York Met season of relays sells out within days of being announced. For many smaller venues, especially outside the cities, it has become both a financial lifeline and a valuable way of expanding the cultural offering to their communities. The big national companies that so far dominate the scene say that they’ve seen no drop off in attendances at their live performances as a result, rather the reverse. Cinemas say that they’re attracting a new audience, one that doesn’t come to the normal film programme, and that was certainly the case in the Odeon last Monday. Yet it’s not without its critics. Those who are keen to promote films outside the Multiplex mainstream understandably feel threatened by event cinema. After all, if your programming choice is between an obscure foreign language film, and Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘Hamlet’, which is going to make you more money and, more important, which is going to please a larger audience?
And there is (pardon the pun) a very large elephant in the room. At present there is absolutely no Scottish content being offered through ‘event cinema’ routes. Across Scotland, many audiences are becoming more familiar with the work of the New York Met, or the National Theatre in London, than with the work of the Scottish companies they pay for through their taxes. The scenario is perhaps a bit like the early days of the Edinburgh Festival, which was criticised for bringing in foreign companies and artforms at the expense of homegrown Scottish culture, because at that time there was no equivalent showcase for that culture, at least until Hamish Henderson and others laid the foundations for what became the Fringe. Maybe we need a similar initiative now, so that audiences in, say, Thurso, can have the choice between the Royal Opera, and Scottish Opera.
© Robert Livingston September 2016