Editorial: History repeats itself? Why ENO's John Berry is wrong about opera at the cinema

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 15 May 2012 | 7:18:00 am

John Berry. Despite appearances this is unlikely to be a cinema
We like, when possible, to keep away from "editorial" statements and instead bring you simply the news as it occurs, but this weeks statement by John Berry, ENO's Artistic Director , whilst having nothing to do with Wagner directly, has forced something of a response. We hope we can be forgiven.

In an interview with the stage (you can read it in its entirety here) Berry stated that he has no interest in broadcasting ENO performances at a cinema. Why? He gave a number of reasons:

"It is of no interest to me. It is not a priority. It doesn’t create new audiences either.”

"My time is consumed with making sure the performance is absolutely as good as it can be, and getting that right on the stage, that is hard enough, and that is my focus, on live work.”


“This company [ENO] spends most of its time making sure its performances are bullet proof. It takes all my time. Get what you know right; choose carefully anything else. But this obsession about putting work out into the cinema can distract from making amazing quality work.”


However, he did admit that the the MET's HD broadcasts had "...caught everyone else with their pants down,” And "...was a result of their high commitment and investment in the process.

As a whole, Berry's statements are simple enough, but for the sake of clarity let us reduce them to their simplest forms and then examine them briefly:

1 Cinema broadcasts by opera houses somehow reduces the quality of the production in its entirety.

This is simply an astounding claim and may be seen as somewhat derogatory of many of the worlds major opera houses that do broadcast performances - some at the same time (occasionally for free) outside of the cinema. Here in the UK Glyndebourne's cinema/internet broadcasts of Meistersinger comes to mind as just one example.

While he somehow excludes the METs performances, is it true that, to give just a few examples, SF Opera's Grand Opera HD relays, Glyndebourne's Meistersinger or the up and coming Bayreuth Parsifal cinema relays have or will in someway "distract from making amazing quality work"? I, and many others, would suggest otherwise. Whether you like a production or not is another matter of course and seems unrelated to the manner in which it is seen. Or does he mean that this is something that either he or ENO feel  unable to achieve?

While I admit that it is impossible to replicate the the experience of the theater in the cinema it still allows those who do not have the opportunity to get to London, New York or Bayreuth for example, to experience a performance - visually. Many of whom might never do so. And this brings us to his second point:

2 Cinema broadcasts do not bring new audiences.


This is clearly a statement without any supporting evidence and may equally depend on what one means by "new audiences". Does he mean new audiences coming to the Colosseum, or new audiences to ENO's productions for the first time - in whatever manner? To address the first point we can go to Sky Arts director James Hunt who in the same article points out that "... broadcasting theatrical productions can actually generate an audience for venues, because viewers are encouraged to see a production live on the back of a broadcast.

But excluding Hunt's assertion for a moment, is a "new audience" defined in its meaning by those attending an opera house or those coming to the production by another means? Would it be logical to suggest that the audience that generated $12 million (profit!) a year from ticket sales to the MET's Opera in HD series did not contain those new to the MET or indeed that it somehow replaced their visit to the MET itself with a cinema visit?

MET's Gatti-Casazza: "Radio? It will never catch on"
The truth is that opera cinema broadcasts may be, outside of DVD and Blueray discs, the only opportunity that a large number of people will have to see certain opera productions. While ENO is a "national opera company" - with associated funding - and its commitment to perform opera in English (whatever your view on that might be) returns one to its original commitment to produce "Opera for the people" it is still based in the centre of London. Ticket prices may indeed be relatively low, but for many people outside of London the chance to see a production may simply be too cost prohibitive. Surely, anything that allows the greater public to see its productions must only be seen as a positive - especially given its proven ability elsewhere to produce yet another substantial "income stream" to a company already struggling with funding cuts?

I am in part reminded of the early days of opera radio broadcasts and the opposition to them by those within the "industry". One can only hope that John Berry's opera legacy is not similar to to that of the MET's Giulio Gatti-Gasazza who opposed the original MET opera radio broadcasts on suspiciously similar grounds, only eventually agreeing when Lee De Forest (the pioneer of opera radio broadcasts) explained that a stage microphone would also allow Gatti-Casazza to hear from his office what was happening on stage.