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Live opera, stage broadcasts - warts and all - win viewers

Opera Singer Angela Denoke playing the role of Kundry appears on a screen in the sound room during a live broadcast of the opera "Parsifal"
Opera Singer Angela Denoke playing the role of Kundry appears on a screen in the sound room during a live broadcast of the opera "Parsifal"

By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - Perhaps the most famous kiss in opera, when the temptress witch Kundry seduces the know-nothing hero of Richard Wagner's "Parsifal", went off without a hitch in a close-up shot for a global live transmission from the Royal Opera House in London.

Then came the glitch.

"Where is the follow spot?" exasperated live transmission director Jonathan Haswell, monitoring the outgoing feed in a studio deep in the bowels of the opera house, grumbled to his small crew hunched over vision mixers and a "Parsifal" score.

Spotlights above the stage had failed to come on instantly to track New Zealand-born tenor Simon O'Neill and German soprano Angela Denoke disengaging from one another.

They flicked on within seconds and it is unlikely that many in the Covent Garden audience earlier this month, or in the cinemas in 28 countries where the Royal Opera screened the transmission, noticed much, if anything, amiss.

But the incident showed the intensity of the effort behind the scenes to bring live performances to audiences in cinemas where the camera reveals intimate details - and snags - invisible even from the best opera house seats.

It underscored what Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York and acknowledged global guru of live opera broadcasts, has called their "reality show" allure.

"There is this cultural kind of gladiatorial aspect to opera singing and opera singers because they are out there, they are singing into (hidden) microphones for the purpose of the audiences in movie theatres but they are not being amplified, they are on their own," Gelb, 60, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

BOX OFFICE

That is one reason more and more people watch live stage performances. The Royal Ballet's live "Nutcracker" was number one in the British box office the day of broadcast on December 12.

"You see it on big screens with big emotions and also it's direct," said Katerina Novikova, head of press for Russia's Bolshoi Theatre whose ballets reach up to 1,000 cinemas. "It's quite touching because you see what's going on on our stage."

Live transmissions have become potential or actual big sources of revenue for the Met, the Bolshoi, the Royal Opera and Ballet, Britain's National Theatre and others that may only have done one or two shows but want to do more.

The Met, which spends $1 million per production for live broadcasts of 10 to 12 operas a year, says it made $17 million from them in its 2013 fiscal year. To emphasize the "liveness", the Met even shows the scenery changes in its broadcasts to be seen this year by about three million people in 64 countries.

"We're not censoring the action and things happen which are fun for the audiences. The audience knows it's all kind of live and spontaneous," Gelb said.

That is a selling point for people who trek to the Barbican Cinema in London to watch "Met Live" from New York, sipping wine and eating smoked salmon sandwiches with friends in the lobby during the interval, or who fill up a theatre in Budapest for a transmission of Shakespeare's "Othello" or Kenneth Branagh in "Macbeth" presented by Britain's National Theatre.

"It's about being part of the larger audience and also that it's happening right there and now," said Michael Mansell, 54, a British translator who regularly attends the National Theatre broadcasts in the Hungarian capital. He likes the quality of acting and the live theatre experience - even from a distance.

"You don't want things to go wrong but things could go wrong. There's the feeling it's happening in front of you, it's not happened before, it's different from a film," he said.

WARTS AND ALL

Things go wrong even for the Met, which has the benefit of years of experience, having made its first live transmission on December 30, 2006. A 10-to-15 second transmission blackout at the Barbican in Verdi's "Falstaff" this month had the audience holding its breath. Gelb is said to track sunspot activity for advance warning of possible satellite transmission disruptions.

But while the high-gloss, high-cost world of opera may want its broadcasts to be as close as possible to perfection, David Sabel, the Washington, DC-born head of digital broadcast for Britain's National Theatre, doesn't have any qualms about spittle issuing from an actor's mouth.

"It's sort of warts and all - this is the theatre," Sabel, 34, told Reuters in an interview.

"If you're in the front row in the theatre you do sometimes get spat on and I think people love that. I think audiences in cinemas, they want it to be like they are there. They can't be in London or they couldn't get a ticket to the show, so isn't it great they can get an opportunity like this?"

If the Met, under Gelb, is now the biggest brand in the live opera world, the National Theatre, whose outgoing artistic director Nicholas Hytner hired the fresh-out-of-business-school Sabel to write a business plan for live theatre transmissions, and then to manage it, is coming up fast.

LEAPFROG GROWTH

It was the Met's leapfrog growth that inspired the National to look into live broadcasts in 2008, Sabel said. Since then the number of cinemas showing broadcasts from the National's stage, and from other theatres that have signed on board, has doubled every year. A transmission of the popular "War Horse" in February is expected to be shown on 1,000 screens, he said.

"It's growing really quickly and luckily it has been a huge success artistically and with audiences," Sabel said. "We find that some people are skeptical the first time because you think filmed theatre hasn't worked in the past, but we've found a way to do it that works."

What the National does, but the Met and Royal Opera do not, is to take over the best seats for its cameras, effectively turning the theatre into a studio for a night, and charging the theatre clientele a bit less per ticket for the inconvenience.

At a cost of about 250,000 pounds ($410,000) per transmission, the National makes a small profit and fulfils its mission of bringing theatre to people throughout Britain, and now the world, Sabel said.

The opera productions, on the other hand, are made with the utmost decorum. The live transmissions are choreographed and scripted down to the last detail. The cameras, while visible inside the opera house, are placed so as not to ruffle the feathers of people spending sometimes $300 a ticket - perhaps ten times what it might cost to attend a cinema screening.

Haswell, 53, who worked as a director for the BBC before going freelance, said enormous advances in high-definition digital cameras and sound capture and editing have made a lot of the magic possible, but preparation is everything.

He pores over DVD recordings of rehearsals, and the score of the opera, to come up with a shot list for his camera crews. With the blessing of stage director Stephen Langridge, he consults the singers about subtle changes in their movements or position on stage to provide better camera shots at specific moments - especially for that kiss.

"Parsifal, when you come down stage left to Kundry, please be within arm's length so you don't have to move your feet," Haswell said he had told tenor O'Neill.

"The reason is I have a tight two-shot here with the two of them in frame and if he steps away the camera has to ease out and you lose that intimacy. It feels like there's some kind of mistake and when it's on a cinema screen that zooming out feels just awful."

O'Neill and Denoke did as instructed. The shot was precisely framed. And the spotlights provided a reminder that this was what it said on the label: Royal Opera live.

($1 = 0.6101 British pounds)

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

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