ENO artistic director John Berry says the 'obsession' about relaying performances is a distraction and does not create new audiences
English National Opera's artistic director has hit out against broadcasting live performance into cinemas, bucking the trend of major arts organisations who are experimenting with new digital broadcasts.
John Berry told the Stage: "This obsession about putting work out into the cinema can distract from making amazing quality work." He continued: "It is of no interest to me. It is not our priority. It doesn't create new audiences either."
Berry's comments will no doubt cause surprise in other parts of the performing arts establishment, where live broadcasts are growing in popularity and acclaim around the world. Proponents argue that it can act as a gateway for new audiences and greatly expand the number of people that can see a particular production, albeit not from within the same room as the actors.
The National Theatre's production of Frankenstein, starring Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, was seen by approximately 100,000 people when it was broadcast globally as part of NT Live last year (Little White Lies: the digital theatre revolution). The recording will be rescreened next month.
It can also generate significant additional funding. The Financial Times reported that the New York Metropolitan Opera – which pioneered the form and broadcast its first live show in 2006 – brings in profits of up to $11m a year from its cinema screenings. Global attendance figures average at 250,000.
In the UK, ENO's main rival, the Royal Opera House, now broadcasts select performances into over 800 cinemas worldwide, while Glyndebourne will screen five of its operas into 50 UK cinemas this summer.
However, Berry argued that organisations should focus on the live event and its particular audience. "My time is consumed with making sure the performance is absolutely as good as it can be, and getting that right on stage, that is hard enough, that is my focus, on live work," he continued.
Last month, the National Theatre's head of digital David Sabel told Guardian Culture Professionals that he understood such reservations, but that the filming process, if done well, should solve these problems: "When you think of filmed theatre," he said, "It's the exact opposite of what it's supposed to be: there in the space, seeing the sweat and feeling the emotion and heat of the room."
He continued: "If we've done our job, you should feel you saw a piece of theatre, not a film, even though there were probably lots of close-ups where the director was choosing what you see."
"I am very happy with the ease and versatility with which I can share my content with my audience, clients and business partners alike."