Classical music tunes up for the big screen

The performing arts have long been holdouts for unfiltered, direct connection between audiences and performers in a digitised, electronic and screen-laden world. Not any more.

Opera houses, ballet companies, even the National Theatre in London, are competing to lure audiences to live high-definition broadcasts in movie theatres, many of which are then shown again. It is the HD-ification of the arts, and it is already affecting programming decisions along with costume and set design, lighting choices and even ticket prices.

Now orchestras are jumping on the HD bandwagon, hoping that big screens can entice new fans to watch black-clad men and women playing musical instruments. The Los Angeles Philharmonic announced on Monday that it would start beaming live orchestra performances under the baton of its charismatic music director, Gustavo Dudamel, to 450 theatres in North America. This venture joins recent forays by the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra into playing live on screen.

While the HD phenomenon has brought performances to millions of people who would not otherwise see them, it also raises major questions. How will it reshape the way shows are cast, directed and designed? Will the photogenic gain the upper hand? Will musicians start acting for the camera? Will stage direction be shaped for close-ups instead of for the view from the balcony?

The best-known purveyor of cultural movie-casts is the Metropolitan Opera, which pioneered the practice five seasons ago. This season, it is transmitting 12 operas live to popcorn-eating audiences on Saturdays, reaching roughly 1,500 theatres in 46 countries.

The Met said 2.4 million tickets were sold last season alone. By contrast, six transmissions in the first season went to 248 theatres in eight countries, with a total attendance of 3,25,000.

The Royal Opera in London and La Scala in Milan are each offering two live opera feeds this season, and the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona is providing one. Emerging Pictures, a distributor of European fare, is beaming eight live ballets from the Royal Ballet in London, the Paris Opera Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. The distributor has provided opera-casts from 11 other companies or festivals in the past several seasons.

The producers argue that live broadcasts build support for the art form, stimulate interest and serve as inspiration to buy locally. There has been little research, and only anecdotal evidence that supports such a view. The broadcasts are not yet considered major sources of revenue; the Los Angeles Philharmonic said it hopes to break even on them.

Aesthetic issues are another matter. Already at the Met, deep consideration is given to how sets and costumes will look on screen. Singers at such broadcasts say they are acutely aware of close-ups. Some critics have questioned whether smaller voices will gain favour.

Cameras are now becoming an inevitable presence in halls and theatres, although technological advances have rendered them smaller and less noticeable. High-culture performances were common on TV in past decades, although in recent years they have generally been relegated to public TV and arts cable channels. Operas have long been turned into movies. The market is flooded with DVDs of recorded performances. And the broadcasts are only part of the latest media strategies, which include online streaming, satellite radio broadcasts and on-demand playback.

Live shows

What is new here is that the showings are live, on a big screen and part of a collective experience. They are also one-time events that are presented as something special.
“It goes back to the root of what makes live performance work, the sense of being in a space and experiencing something collectively,” Sabel said. “You’re experiencing it in the moment, and then it’s gone.”

Whatever the effect on art forms or audiences, new technology, audience appetites for what cameras can provide, and the hunger of marketers to reach new ticket-buyers are fuelling a very modern way of consuming art.

The rapid conversion at movie houses from 35-millimetre-film projectors to digital has been a prerequisite. About one-third of the nation’s 39,000 movie screens have acquired digital capacity in just the past five years.

“The technology has gotten good enough at this point so what we put on the screen is a really satisfying experience for the audience, without it costing a ridiculous amount of money,” said Ira Deutchman, the managing director of Emerging Pictures, which has a network of 140 theatres.

Multiplex operators are happy to have events to show during off-hours. They can also charge more than for the typical movie ticket. The new technology comes at a time when cultural institutions are fighting for attention. Movie broadcasts reach people who would not go to theatres for whatever reason: living room competition like on-demand movies, or the inconvenience of fighting traffic, or $250 tickets, or maybe thousands of miles of distance.

And audiences have been drawn to the behind-the-scenes interviews and features that go along with many of the transmissions, the sort of reality-TV access people have grown accustomed to.

For orchestras, the concept is more of a gamble. Movie theatre audiences have plenty to watch when costumed opera characters carry out lusty, murderous or comic doings. Ballet dancers gambol across the stage in displays of grace and precision, a feast for the eye.

But orchestra players tend to wear black and just sit there (although Dudamel is a kinetic, hair-flopping presence). They also tend to play it safe when they know a film is being made that would preserve every error. And there is nothing to make up for substandard movie theatre sound systems during a symphonic concert.

Some orchestras feel that the gamble is worth taking. The Berlin Philharmonic showed its Aug 27 opening-night concert live in 70 theatres, mostly in Europe. On Sept 18, the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland transmitted its closing concert, by the Vienna Philharmonic led by Dudamel, to 50 European theatres. The Philadelphia Orchestra is transmitting nine concerts this season to about 30 movie theatres and 50 retirement homes and other community centres in the United States, said Mark Rupp, the president of its distributor, SpectiCast.

Deborah Borda, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s president and chief executive, argues that the medium will work for orchestras, or at least her own.

“We have some unique assets: Gustavo Dudamel, the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall, a wonderful orchestra and a vision about programming,” she said. “You put that together and we felt it was the right time.”

Borda said the Philharmonic would experiment with three concerts this season: a Jan 9 programme of works by John Adams, Leonard Bernstein and Beethoven; a March 13 Tchaikovsky programme; and a June 5 programme of Brahms: the Symphony No 4 and the Double Concerto with the Capucon brothers — the violinist Renaud and the cellist Gautier — as soloists. Suggested ticket prices will be around $20.

“The goal is not just to promote the Los Angeles Philharmonic but to strengthen the audience for classical music around the country,” Borda said. “The audience for this, if it’s working in the way we think it can, will grow.”

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