2020 May Kirsten Flagstad -1206
icon-twitter icon-facebook

Marriage Guidance

Dennis Marks at Opera Europa’s Barcelona forum

The marriage between opera and the screen is often a dysfunctional one, and counselling usually arrives only when the partners are sleeping in separate bedrooms and barely speaking to each other. So it was encouraging to learn that Opera Europa had dedicated three and a half sessions during its Barcelona forum (April 17-19) to the prickly relationship between lyric drama and the media. After two decades spent directing, producing and commissioning opera on both sides of this divide, I am as ambivalent about filmed opera as I was when I first pointed cameras at the cramped Glyndebourne stage in the mid 1980s. In those days, it often felt like a shotgun wedding. Television was grudgingly admitted to the opera house with minimal rehearsal time, awkward camera positions and dingy lighting, and was expected to pay extravagantly for the privilege. Once in a while, broadcasters would seize the initiative and mount their own studio productions, but they were even more costly and were at best an artistic compromise. Then, during the economic adrenalin rush of the late 1980s, filmed opera experienced its own Big Bang. A landscape once inhabited by a handful of public service broadcasters expanded to become a world in which hundreds of channels, digital and terrestrial, jostled with cinema, the internet and home video to attract
audiences, only to shrink as the Big Bang yielded to the Credit Crunch. So the Barcelona forum was a timely opportunity to reflect on a 20-year switchback ride.

The media sessions accounted for only a fraction of the Barcelona programme. The theme of the conference was ‘Creativity and Innovation’, and the star turns were delivered by such major players as Brian MacMaster, David Pountney, Gerard Mortier and Pierre Audi. Nevertheless, with opera houses falling like skittles in the USA and governments in Europe beginning to slash cultural budgets, it was impossible to ignore the recessionary rising damp. Even MacMaster, one of nature’s optimists, had to hedge his keynote address with caveats. When he declared that risk-taking was at the heart of creativity, he qualified his claim. ‘Risk,’ he said, ‘is best taken from a position of security, and these are not the most secure of times.’ He noted that, just as the western world was retreating into economic protectionism, so in opera ‘a lot of the work today is done in a slightly narrow, nationalistic way’. This was a natural cue to bring on the media. They have no choice but to be internationalist. Digital television and the web know no national borders. The cinema is commercially viable only on a global scale. However, in Barcelona this April it was the opera houses that took centre stage.

The tone had already been set in the Paris opera forum two years ago. Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met and former Sony executive, launched his plans for his new home by announcing a deal to deliver Met productions into cinemas worldwide. Where the camera was once regarded as an intruder, it was now being promoted as a saviour, but with one important difference: opera houses were no longer petitioners at the gates of the broadcasters; they were now the masters. Gelb was absent from Barcelona, but his spirit haunted proceedings. The cinema impresario Giovanni Cozzi spoke of ‘expanding opera into a bigger audience’. Far from competing with the stage, it was a magnet which could draw people to the live event. ‘Some people,’ he said, ‘saw the brilliant Valencia Rheingold and, like the Los Angeles critic Mark Swed, were inspired to fly to Spain to see the rest. For the opera house, cinema represents new audiences.’ 

Tony Hall of the Royal Opera House (which in 2007 purchased the DVD company Opus Arte) enlarged the picture and painted it in even more extravagant colours. ‘Now we are all broadcasters, we are all multi-media producers. We did a deal with Sony to install a full High Definition filming system, we did a deal with all the talent and finally we bought a DVD company. Now we are in control of what we do.’ After the purchase of Opus Arte, a new agreement between Covent Garden and the BBC followed. Hall’s language was calm and corporate, but what he was describing was nothing less than a commercial coup. The relationship with the BBC was no longer a marriage. It was simply another business transaction. In case we were in any doubt, he illustrated the new accommodation with a story from last season: ‘We commissioned The Minotaur from Harrison Birtwistle. The BBC didn’t want it but we decided to release it on DVD. The BBC then decided to transmit it on a Saturday evening on BBC2 and it reached an audience of 400,000.’ He admitted that the purchase of Opus Arte DVD was controversial, but he was unapologetic. ‘Why was a charity buying a commercial enterprise? We did it to own our own content and that’s much easier if you do it in a commercial way.’

To learn how the relationship between opera and broadcasting had turned through 180 degrees, delegates in Barcelona had to make a choice. While stage directors, Intendants, composers and designers explored creation and innovation in the spacious Liceu Foyer, the media representatives had to offer restorative therapy in the more
intimate spaces on the fringes of the house. I am sure that this was not a conscious attempt to marginalize broadcasters and distributors, but it carried odd echoes of the relationship between opera companies and video producers I first observed 20 years ago. I missed talks by George Benjamin and David Pountney, and caught only half of the presentation by the prodigious Fura dels Baus company (shortly to bring Ligeti’s Grand Macabre to the Coliseum), because they each clashed with media sessions. Did no one wonder whether the media might not be interested in innovation and creativity? Or was our role simply to deliver the intellectual property owned by the lyric theatres to the market place and then retreat to our separate bedrooms?

The media sessions were put together by IMZ, an umbrella organization based in Vienna which has represented practitioners in music and the media for half a century. Its membership includes performing arts venues as well as broadcasters, independent film-makers, and the record and DVD industry. IMZ was a marriage broker long before Opera America, let alone Opera Europa, was conceived. Yet when they screened excerpts from recent videos and films, fewer than 20 delegates attended and the technology provided by the Liceu broke down. At the comprehensive session on how to build relationships, only a handful of the smaller houses were present. Plus ça change.

If they had been there, some of the bigger players might have learned a few tough truths. Chris Hunt—film-maker, media executive, online distributor and current president of IMZ—delivered a brief marital history: ‘Ten years ago artists made most of their money from video and CD sales. Then CD sales fell away and record labels shut down their classical titles. Now the CD and DVD sales don’t drive the live shows—the market has flipped over and the tours drive the DVDs. The TV market has nose-dived as well. State broadcasters who were always the core began to fall apart. I consider TV a failed market. The local broadcaster used to contribute up to £500,000, maybe more. There was enough money to go round. We recently produced an opera for £210,000. Half came from Sky, a DVD label added £40,000, world TV a further £20,000 and the opera house itself put in £20,000. I think that the reason to invest in what you do is not profit or to control intellectual property. You do it for brand
extension and media brand value.’

This is a long way from innovation and creativity, not to mention ‘coming together as a community to think about life’, the resonant phrase in which MacMaster described live theatre. So are the media to blame? Did they steal the spirit from filmed opera and replace it with marketing and promotion? I wonder. At the BBC I was asked to
broadcast Peter Sellars’s production of John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer from the stage. I could not see how cameras could capture the live experience, and at the time there was no suitable UK venue. After I left the BBC, Channel 4’s Jan Younghusband imaginatively asked Penny Woolcock to reconceive it as a film. Not only did it win the Italia Prize, but with its incorporation of documentary material and its rigorous compression, it was generally considered superior to the stage presentation. I have no idea what John Adams thought, but he was sufficiently impressed by Woolcock to entrust her with the staging of Doctor Atomic. Marriage is a two-way street, as my own BBC experience bears out. When Mark-Anthony Turnage’s first opera, Greek, was brought from Munich to English National Opera, rather than filming it on the stage we found an empty industrial space and invited Jonathan Moore and Peter Maniura to recreate it as a proper film. It won a Royal Philharmonic Society award, and was
subsequently released on video.

In Barcelona, the media sessions wandered in the byways of intellectual property, pausing to remind the music publishers that the impoverished DVD market was unlikely to generate sufficient income to make their composers rich. There was much dalliance with the internet, but once again the web was presented as a marketing tool rather than a mature form of communication with its own aesthetics. It was left to one happy marriage to suggest how opera houses and broadcasters might create something together that was greater than the sum of its parts. For more than a decade, there has been a fruitful partnership between the Zurich Opernhaus and Schweitzer Fernsehen (German-language Swiss Television). As so often happens, it was a fusion of inspiration and courage—the collaboration of two visionary impresarios supported by a broadcast controller with genuine courage. This is how Thomas Beck, the head of music at SF, described how he sold the idea to his controller: ‘We decided to broadcast Die Zauberflöte on both channels, one for the opera and one for backstage, with 16 cameras—to make a real prime-time event out of it. We had ten minutes to present the idea. There was silence and then they said, “Let’s do it, it doesn’t matter what it costs.” For the first time in my department the whole public relations machinery started—we had eight trailers a day, we were mentioned in all the prime-time news bulletins, and in the end we had 34 per cent market share, which was a sensation.’

SF followed Die Zauberflöte with an even bolder project: ‘We decided to go to Zurich main station, which has 300,000 passengers a day, and present La traviata on the concourse. We told our viewers not to come to the station, but 3,000 people came anyway. There was no amplification but they stayed to the end. After transmission, we received 10,000 phone calls in 24 hours and our switchboard broke down. This time we broadcast only on a single channel and opposite a Champions League game. Our market share was 35 per cent.’

As Nicholas Payne, the director of Opera Europa, remarked, the key to their success was the relationship between Beck and Alexander Pereira, the Intendant of Zurich: ‘You need to have two crazy collaborators and a television executive prepared to indulge their crazy ideas.’ Brian MacMaster was not at Beck’s presentation, but if he saw the broadcast, I am certain he would have agreed that it represented ‘a community coming together to think about life’. Such a relationship requires more than just the ownership of rights and a DVD label and a long-term contract with cinemas. It should provide a door through which to enter opera rather than simply a mirror to reflect it. And, like the SF-Zurich Traviata—indeed, like all successful marriages—it should be about collaboration, not control.

Cabbells April 2020 rectangle
2019-20 IOA