Increasingly shown in 3D, classic stage works including Madam Butterfly are winning new audiences
If there is a queue around the block leading into the local cinema this month, it might not be for the next in a chain of blockbuster action sequels. Should the cinema be a smaller, independent venture, people may be lining up to watch an opera or a ballet.
The growth of live and recorded opera and ballet performance for cinema audiences is providing a bankable boost for many cinemas. This spring, there is an added attraction: more productions will be screened in 3D, bringing audiences even closer to the theatrical experiences at a fraction of the cost of tickets.
Tomorrow, the Royal Opera House will release its new feature film, Madam Butterfly 3D, and the team behind the production argue it is not just a cheaper option for opera fans, but also a good way to be introduced to the form.
"This development in cinemas can only be a good thing," said cellist Julian Lloyd Webber this weekend. Although an evangelist for live music, he believes that the opportunity to see top-quality classical music, opera and ballet locally is opening up the art forms, with younger audiences drawn in by the lower prices.
"It's very hard for people to see these things in person, and they sell out very quickly, too," he said. "I think it is a particularly good thing for the regions, which can be even more cut off."
Madam Butterfly will be the second collaboration between Covent Garden and RealD, following last year's Carmen in 3D, while Matthew Bourne will be bringing his hugely successful reworking of Swan Lake into cinemas in a new 3D format this month. The ballet, famous for replacing the orthodox female corps de ballet with a menacing male ensemble at the north London dance venue in 1995, was filmed in 3D at Sadlers Wells, with Richard Winsor as the lead swan and Nina Goldman as the Queen. The multi-camera technique is billed as creating an illusion of space around the dancers, bringing a dramatic realism.
The move follows the decision Sir Simon Rattle took last year when he brought the Berlin Philharmonic, where he has been principal conductor since 2002, to 140 British cinemas, also in 3D. The technology aimed to give cinemagoers the sensation of not only sitting in the front rows but in among the orchestra, with close-ups of virtuoso players.
Rattle was following in the footsteps of New York's Metropolitan Opera, which has reached 1,500 screens in 46 countries, tripling its audience, selling record numbers of tickets and finding a useful extra stream of income for orchestral musicians.
The British conductor's initiative was picked up last year by Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who brought a high-definition performance with the Vienna Philharmonic to cinemas across the UK and Europe in a screening last September of the closing gala concert from the Lucerne Festival. Audiences in the Odeon in Covent Garden, the Swan Cinema in Ireland and nine Showcase cinemas in England and Scotland watched the concert from the KKL Luzern concert hall at the same time as viewers in Germany, Austria and Norway.
Madam Butterfly was captured with 3D cameras during live performances at the Royal Opera House and tells the tragic story of a Japanese geisha's love for an American naval officer that moved Giacomo Puccini to compose one of the most popular scores of all time.
Liping Zhang will appear as Butterfly, Cio-Cio San, a role for which she is acclaimed worldwide, and James Valenti is the dashing Pinkerton.
The production is a revival of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's production, and will also star a retired opera singer from Suffolk called Robin Leggate who plays Goro, one of the lead roles. A Royal Opera House stalwart, Leggate has performed with the company for 25 years and Madam Butterfly was his last show there before he retired. His final performance at Covent Garden will now be seen in 1,500 cinemas worldwide.
New York's Met, the pioneering opera house which has been running a cinema season since 2006, will also continue broadcasting live shows in British cinemas this spring, including Verdi's Ernani and Massenet's Manon.
"Our DSO to Go app has not only helped our live webcasts reach tremendous success around the globe, but has been an accessible sales channel for many first-time concertgoers without prior ticket or contribution history."