Wagner’s opera house at Bayreuth was built to be a state-of-the-art technological marvel of its day, its broad stage acting as a sweeping canvas across which epic stories were set to hyper-emotive music and played out by larger-than-life characters. Add a touch of plush to the seats along with the crunch of popcorn, and it seems clear that Wagner’s notion of a Gesamtkunstwerk would, in the 20th Century, apply just as readily to cinema.

A modern vision

Opera and the movies have always been natural bedfellows. In the early days of film, opera houses were often requisitioned as cinemas so that in the minds of audiences, a brilliant triumphal chorus by Verdi merged almost seamlessly into a Cecil B DeMille spectacular with a cast of thousands.

Paradoxically, opera has been slow to exploit cinema as a vehicle for popularising and democratising the art form. Great cinematic versions of operas do exist, including a handful of classics of the genre such as Paul Czinner’s Rosenkavalier (conducted by Herbert von Karajan), Ingmar Bergman’s enchanting Magic Flute, Joe Losey’s Don Giovanni (with the compelling Ruggiero Raimondi in the title role), and Franco Zefirelli’s touching La traviata.

However, it is only with the arrival of the digital age and the ability to deliver superb-quality images on a grand scale in high-definition via satellite, that the real potential of opera in cinema became apparent. All it needed was a visionary plan of action.

Enter Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Gelb is among a new generation of entrepreneurial opera bosses who think of in terms of global mass markets rather than elite niches. In his previous job as head of Sony Classics, he masterminded a turn around in the fortunes of the company by vigorous marketing of soundtracks to movie blockbusters such as Titanic and promoting so-called operatic “sensations” such as Charlotte Church. Gelb’s detractors have accused him of selling out and pandering to populist tendencies. But his strategy of using cinema as a mass marketing medium for opera has been breathtakingly successful.

In 2006, Gelb launched the Metropolitan Opera’s monthly live “cinecasts” by satellite, with a spectacular production of Mozart’s Magic Flute, staged by Lion King director Julie Taymore. The opera was seen in eight countries and 240 theaters, and was an instant sell-out. Today, The Met Live in HD shows draw audiences of more than two million people at thousands of theaters in around 50 countries. It was a no-brainer that other opera companies should follow The Met’s precedent, and these days at your local cinema, you’re likely to be able to catch the latest productions from La Scala in Milan, London’s Royal Opera House and Glyndebourne.

So, what is the attraction of seeing opera in a cinema rather than at an opera house? To start with, a ticket costs around £20, with a view of the stage that punters at the Royal Opera would pay between five and ten times as much to enjoy. The 5.1 surround sound represents the state-of-the-art in audio technology and the HD picture quality is, at its best, scarily good. Another advantage is that opera houses tend to get sold out or are abroad, so cinema could be your only chance to see The Met or La Scala.

Investment in technology

These days, filming an opera for cinecast represents a huge outlay in resources and equipment. Glyndebourne and Covent Garden have both invested in a full technical suite with monitors and remote control cameras, along with a growing army of technicians, editors and post-production staff. It’s an expensive business, but one that (according to The Met at any rate) is beginning to pay its own way. And today’s hi-tech exercise is a vast improvement on those poorly-lit and rather static opera productions shot for television and video release in the closing decades of the 20th Century.

Casting and cinematic close ups

Meanwhile, cinema is leaving its mark on the way operas are produced in the opera house itself. The scrutiny of the camera means that the days of wooden acting and improbable casting have had to be addressed by an artistic fraternity who were, in a bygone age, happy to forgive any physical shortcomings as long as the tenor could hit a glorious top C without fail.

Nowadays, the demands of the cinematic close-up mean Madam Butterfly really does have to be plausible as an innocent young girl, and that Tosca thrusting the knife into her nemesis, the Baron Scarpia, has to look blood-curdlingly real. Film directors such as Sally Potter (who produced English National Opera’s controversial Carmen) and even Woody Allen (Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi in Los Angeles) are gradually infiltrating the world of opera with a brief to make the art form more “relevant” to contemporary audiences.

The downside of this is that singers are increasingly cast for their looks alone rather than their voices, and this can be to the detriment of the music. No matter how ravishingly the Fat Lady sings, if the camera catches her at the wrong angle, the results can be, well, a little unkind. One example of a change in casting which was motivated at least in part by the production’s cinematic presentation was in the Royal Opera House’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, directed by Francesca Zambello. Originally created in 2002 with Bryn Terfel in the title role, the production required the Don to be stripped to the waist for much of the final scene, with a brief and perfectly tasteful glimpse of nudity in the closing moments of the opera. Terfel, with his retired rugby player’s build, could just about pull this off in the opera house with sympathetic lighting. For the less-forgiving filmed version, screened in 2008, the production was cast with the lithe and athletic Simon Keenlyside in the title role, showing off his admirable six-pack in the final cinematic close-up.

Some singers, however, do have it all: Danielle De Niese as Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulo Cesare at Glyndebourne was one performance that transferred superbly to the cinema screen.

An added dimension

The appetite of the big opera houses to play with new technology seems insatiable. Tony Hall, CEO of the Royal Opera House, is already talking about filming in 3D and video on demand. Bayreuth, meanwhile, is gearing up to live streaming over the internet of the entire Ring Cycle in 2013, the bi-centenary of Wagner’s birth. How far removed from live opera as experienced in the theatre, are we willing to get? Perhaps the crunch will come when there are more cameras on stage than performers and when the enjoyment of real audiences in real theatres becomes secondary to that of their virtual counterparts.

For now, the balance between the live and virtual experience seems to be about right. Opera is an art that is absolutely tailor-made for the hyperbole of theatre; and it is part of the hyperbolic, dramatic power of an opera singer’s voice that it shouldn’t be heard through the distorting prism of loud speakers, no matter how sophisticated the technology. Cinema brings an added dimension to how audiences can access and enjoy opera, weaving yet another strand into Wagner’s great notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk without intruding too much into the essence and spirit of the “real thing”.

Go and experience it and you will agree with me that opera is like organic bread—to be taken with no artificial additives; live, vibrant, and minus the popcorn.

Ashutosh Khandekar is the Editor of Opera Now.  Website: www.rhinegold.co.uk/operanow