The Royal Opera Thinks Globally

Email a Friend

Regular visitors to this space know that I see opera in global terms. While I am a New Yorker and my city has much to offer the opera lover, opera in modern times has become about availability of performers and performances in more places. Opera houses are opening in China, in Oman and locales where the Western art form known as opera would never have been seen or, for that matter, tolerated. Never mind Salome or Lulu...there is enough subject matter that would give offense in Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni or Così fan tutte in many societies.

More theaters means more demand for top singers. Many of them, understandably, go where the money is or for the interesting experience of singing before a new audience. While, in the past, a singer would arrive in a city and have her “season” there before moving on to the next city, the jet plane means that a singer can perform in three cities in one week. Whether this is good for singers and for opera is the subject for another time.

While nothing can match attending a live opera performance (and everyone should have as a New Year’s resolution the intention to do that), opera comes to us in other ways. There is radio, which lets us listen to live performances and become stage directors in our heads. We all know people who build their lives around the Saturday afternoon broadcasts that have come from the Metropolitan Opera since Dec. 7, 1940. There are audio recordings and videos, another way to bring opera into the home.

The Met and other companies, including La Scala and the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, do High Definition (HD) transmissions of opera performances to cinemas around the world. Many companies do simultaneous transmissions to public squares near theaters. It is lovely, in Vienna, to sit near the State Opera and eat chocolates while watching on a screen the performance that is being done, live, inside the theater. That is not opera, but it is still meaningful.

In marketing terms (and I think “marketing” is a loathsome word when it comes to the arts), the operating principle is about what is known as reach. The best means of reach, of course, is to get someone into the opera house for a live performance. The amazing sound, the collective experience of being in an audience living and breathing those emotions and melodies, and the ability to decide what it is you look at (rather than a television director deciding for you), is opera at its best.

But reach is also achieved through other media, as I have indicated above. In terms of how a company strives for more reach, though, some do it better than others. If everything that is supposedly being presented as education has a strong whiff of marketing and attempts at persuasion and selling, that does not create a love and fascination for the art form. It pushes rather than reaches.

Which brings me to a company that I think is doing things well. The Royal Opera House in London, which famously went through rough times a decade or so ago, is now in clover. Under Antonio Pappano the company has the kind of strong musical leadership and vision that La Scala had when Claudio Abbado was at the helm in the 1970s and 1980s. It has had a strong executive director in Tony Hall, who helped give the company structure and currency. Hall announced in November that he will soon go to the BBC, a storied institution that has been wracked with scandals that have tarnished its reputation. He is the man for the job, but it is an important loss for Covent Garden.

Because the Royal Opera House is the home of two world-class companies, the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet, its structure is different from a theater that is primarily the home of an opera company. There is the executive director and then there are two figures, the director of opera (Kasper Holten) and the director of ballet (Kevin O’Hare) who are responsible for the individual companies, working in collaboration with the executive director. The companies have put a renewed emphasis not only on quality, but substance. While not everything works ideally in any opera company, the Royal Opera has been on a roll. When I talk to singers, almost all seem quite pleased with the working environment and spirit there.

The Royal Opera has various educational activities and is approaching reach in unusual ways. I like to watch their videos on YouTube because, while they are intended to let you know an opera production is being done and it is worth the time and money to try to attend it, there is also a sense that you can learn something from the videos as well. They don’t feel like a sales pitch.

Here is Kasper Holten talking about his production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Holten, who is Danish, is not only the leader of the opera wing at Covent Garden, but also a well-regarded director of opera productions. The opera will star Simon Keenlyside and Krassimira Stoyanova.

The company will do an HD transmission of La Bohéme in cinemas on January 15. Its YouTube video effectively combines promotion with education.  This video about broadcasting also is well-done:

To me, the Royal Opera’s most exciting and interesting attempt for reach will come on Monday, Jan. 7, with The Royal Opera Live, an Internet transmission beginning at 5:30 am ET (10:30 am GMT). Through the course of the day and evening there will be mostly live webcasts of events happening in the theater. These will include rehearsals for Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur and Holten’s new production of Eugene Onegin. Pappano will lead a master class with young artists.

The chorus will rehearse for an upcoming new production of Nabucco (in which Plácido Domingo will sing the title role in some of the performances). I think it will interest audiences to see a set designer present the models for a new production of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago. I imagine there will be many other insights into the working life and stresses of a major opera house. I hope that people will not be on their “best behavior” but will be themselves. Sometimes it takes a little friction to produce creative sparks.

The transmission will be capped, at about 2:30 pm ET, with a previously produced video using 21 cameras that documents life in the theater (including backstage) during the third act of Die Walküre.

The whole undertaking is quite ambitious and, to my mind, provocative, because it is live. Anything can happen, just as in live opera. Wherever you live on Planet Opera, you can watch the Royal Opera either on The Space or the the Guardian newspaper's website.