Culture House Daily

Televising theatre and opera will not attract new audiences. It will repel them

28 March 2014

Always try to get the worst seats for the opera. Upper circle. Foyer. Toilet. The nearest bus stop. The further back the better. You’ll regret it if you don’t. There really is nothing more off-putting than being able to see the singers. Opera up close, as Princess Margaret once said, is just two fat people shouting at each other in a large room. And then there’s the clown make-up and trannie costumes to deal with. It all makes much more sense from afar, where it assumes a lovely dreamy abstract fuzz. Was that a smile? Or a stroke? Who knows. The words and music will carry you along.

But even ‘good’ theatrical acting looks absurd close up. Gemma Arteton knows this. She let the truth slip out during the new arts visiony thing at the Beeb the other day. Alan Yentob was trying to get her to wax lyrically about the BBC’s decision to broadcast more live performances. What was the difference between acting for a theatre audience and acting to camera, he asked? Subtlety, she replied. Yeah, exactly.

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And yet this is the director general’s stroke of genius: to televise all this crude semaphoring. Sure, us diehards will enjoy it. We’ve had years of training. We’re inured to the fact that most opera singers look like they’re drowning on stage. But for newcomers weaned on, you know, actual good acting the effect will be disastrous. We’ll lose them forever.

I’ll admit, there are advantages to screening to the box at home rather than the local cinema. No one’s going to care if you whip out a hot dog or tub of pop corn in the final act of Tristan and Isolde – unlike some grumps I encountered when I tried to do this at a screening of the Lehnhoff Glyndebourne production a few years ago. (Some people are so touchy.) And the nosing around back stage that most screened operas and plays do was made for telly. The behind-the-scenes interviews with New Jersey stagehands during intervals of screenings from the Met and their Cape Canaveral-like countdowns are a joy. But that’s just the beauty of reality TV for you.

So don’t be fooled. None of this is to do with accessibility. It’s to do with a misguided BBC paternalism. Focusing in on the least attractive element of opera and theatre – the close up visuals – will repel not entice. Rather than giving people what they want, the BBC are offering a crap version of what people definitely don’t want. A very BBC reinterpretation of ‘public service’.

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Show comments
  • GeeBee36_6

    Is there any actual point to this ‘writer’? I’ve read two of his pieces and cannot for the life of me see how he makes any contribution to anything. He is a licensed troll, no more.

  • mariandavid

    What appalling rubbish – and just as an aside the “fat singer” reference betrays a writer who lives in a previous generation and from the evidence has rarely seen a modern opera production. The truth is that both versions – live and TV can work or can fail. It all depends on the production and, above all, on the personal taste of the viewer. I respect those who detest TV – I prefer live, but glory in a transmitted Met performance at the local movie house. My only strong suggestion is that Igor consider a task other than art critic.

  • IainRMuir

    A fat opera singer comment?

    Shouldn’t we have moved on from this by now?

  • Colin

    The Sky Arts channel has been doing this for years. It’s very popular and refreshing. Do keep up…

  • startledcod

    More or less spot on.

  • Tony Quintus

    Completely disagree, I think this is a great thing, though live screening might be a bit of a mistake, I would love to see the BBC record every Play, Ballet and Opera towards the end of its run (so as not to take away from theatre ticket sales) and then screen them on BBC4. We aren’t talking about this as a replacement for high quality TV drama, but as a way for people who live north of the Watford gap to access the weath of culture in London.
    Now we just need to get the trust to veto the BBC3 changes (though it needs a revised schedule, making it more akin to BBC2 in the 90s, Mary Whitehouse, Red Dwarf, Fresh Prince etc) combined with making the iPlayer registered users only (with a TV license of course, with a generous device limit, say 15 or so) and get the major streaming providers (NetFlix etc) to make having a TVL part of their terms of service in exchange for access to vast quantities of commercially marginal, but popular, vintage content (Blue Peter, Eastenders, Panorama,Tomorrow’s World, Old Top Gear etc etc) and the BBC might actually be set up for the future.

    • newname

      Quite right, and I’d just add there should be some arrangement for people living overseas – I’d be quite willing to pay for legal access to these programmes (illegal access of course always being possible), but was told that “copyright issues” prevent it.

    • Daniel Maris

      I agree – I made a similar comment earlier on.

      I think the theatres would probably benefit from such exposure – people who otherwise would not bother would get interested in theatre and buy tickets, especially if there were some sort of wrap-around TV review prog that linked in with what was going on in the West End.

      Probably would have to be a case of say showing only 70% of end of run shows – so no one could anticipate being able to see it on TV.

      Also such filmed plays don’t need to be the static experience of yore. With the mini-cams of today, which actors can wear, TV could create a v. dynamic on stage experience.

  • MWnyc

    What, you gotta problem with New Jersey stagehands?

    • Jabez Foodbotham

      I originally read it as the New Jersey staghounds, That grabbed my attention, briefly.

  • Daniel Maris

    I disagree. Live performances can be exciting and inspiring. I remember as child enjoying the Whitehall farces that the BBC used to broadcast – live theatre.

    I’ve enjoyed opera from the Met on TV – where they take you back stage as well.

    It would be great if all the big West End plays were broadcast live at the end, or near the end, of their run.

  • SpookySpook

    I completely agree. Tony Hall has completely mucked this whole ‘arts vision’ thing up.

  • JoeDM

    Who let the philistine out ?

  • post_x_it

    From personal experience I agree. I’ve racked up hundreds of great performances of live opera, and it’s one of my greatest passions, but I cannot bear watching any opera on TV or (heaven forbid) on a cinema screen. If my first experience of opera had been through a secondary medium, I doubt I would have explored it any further.
    Having said that, lots of people seem to love going to the cinema screenings.

    • JoeDM

      Getting to the ROH or the Coliseum for those of us living outside the M25 is rather difficult. So one makes do with Operas on Sky Arts or DVD.

      • MWnyc

        Mind, no dissing of the regional houses or touring companies. More than occasionally they offer a better experience than the big houses.

        • JoeDM

          I was working in Cardiff back in the 90s when the WNO were at the top of their game and saw some sublime productions and performances that would put the ROH to shame.

          • post_x_it

            I made the trek to Cardiff for Die Meistersinger four years ago, and it was world-class. Not just because Bryn was in it. It really was excellent all round. I also enjoyed the atmosphere in the house very much – the sparkling conversation at our big commual dinner table in the interval was an event in itself!

  • Kitty MLB

    I agree with you once more delightful Igor.
    The BBC are utter asinine philistines. One of the many points in regards to the theatre
    and the opera is that they are LIVE performances where you can unadorned
    hear the peoples and see them in a darkened atmospheric building and not
    on your sofa in your dressing gown, looking at a box- Oh Lord ! All the noises and everything else is part of the experience.
    You mention Tristram and Isolde -charming and I always think of those when I see
    our statuesque and handsome, shadow secretary of state for Education.

    • mightymark

      No – he mentioned correctly TrisTAN and Isolde so you have absolutely no right whatsoever getting the hots for Mr Hunt on that account.

  • grammarschoolman

    ‘a crap version of what people definitely don’t want’

    And you’re a crap version of an arts critic. If you think it’s all rubbish, then go back to covering handball.

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