Going to the cinema is one of the favourite Irish pastimes. In times gone by, the cinemagoer’s experience was pretty much limited to comedy, action, horror, and maybe the odd musical, but in recent years, a new cinematic event has become available to Irish audiences and thousands like them the world over: that is the phenomenon of theatre, opera, and ballet on the big screen.
This departure from stage to screen is not particularly astounding from a technological point of view. We can very easily access music, theatre, and ballet performances that have broadcast on television or radio (the Met have been broadcasting live performances of their operas for over eighty years). The companies behind these ‘simulcasts’, however, push the fact that these performances are being beamed live to your local cinema. I, for one, don’t quite understand why this is such an attraction. I know from personal experience that going to the opera at three in the afternoon is a bit bizarre, not to mention going to the opera in the cinema.
The implications of this new development in the world of performance and reception are significant, and it is worth going to one of these simulcasts just to observe the strange adherence to certain conventions of theatre-going and the rejection of others inherent in the performance situation. You must be prepared for this experience from the off. For instance, you can’t just turn up at the cinema on the day and decide to see Swan Lake, as my friend and I once foolishly assumed we could. Just like going to the Opera House, you must have your ticket for these events booked in advance, and you must sit in your assigned seat, because some audience members are very particular about where they sit for their favourite Shakespeare play or Tchaikovsky ballet even if they know they will most likely have the same view as everyone else in the multiplex. Some people choose to dress up for these screening like they would for a night at the opera. And one of the most intriguing questions that this kind of event raises is that of applause – no matter how good a performance is, it’s just weird to clap at a cinema screen when the curtain falls.
Then, of course, there is the problem of technical difficulties. No matter what side of the fence you’re on when it comes to these simulcasts, it’s impossible not to be put off by a frozen image or out-of-sync sound. All performance essentially aims for perfect delivery, and so a glitch like that can undermine the whole practice and distract from the quality of the show being presented.
However, there are some real advantages to seeing world-class performances on the big screen. The first time I ever attended a ‘Live in HD’ event was during my Leaving Cert year, when my class went to see the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet. This was shown on huge screen in Cork Opera House, not in a cinema, but the effect was largely the same. When I had come to terms with the novelty of the projection, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. Had it not been for the National Theatre’s decision to broadcast the performance, I wouldn’t have seen this exciting and innovative production that remains one of the best things I have ever seen on ‘stage’.
Another great thing about these productions is that many of them are filmed with multiple cameras, giving the audience a variety of perspectives of the same production. So, the audience gets to see performers’ expressions and movements, props and set details and, in the case of the Berlin Philharmonic’s concerts, the orchestra musicians’ skill like never before.
This kind of performance undeniably lacks what I will rather cheesily term the ‘magic of performance.’ Part of the joy of going to the theatre, the opera, the ballet, or a concert is to feel the electricity in the room between the performers and the audience. Seeing a great performance is one thing, but being present at it is another. Seeing an incredible talent on a tv broadcast or DVD makes you wish you had been there in person, and the same is true of ‘Live in HD’ events. The Met Opera state on their website that, thanks to their surround sound technology, seeing one of their productions in a cinema is ‘the next best audio experience to being in the opera house itself.’ So why, you might ask, would you not just go to your local opera house and witness the best? Well, not everyone has a local opera house, and, in this case, a high quality broadcast is an excellent alternative.
Local performance arts companies may be intimidated by the big names and high-budget productions coming into multiplexes, but I think that people will always want to see live performance right in front of them. The Met, the Bolshoi Ballet, the National Theatre, and all the other companies that broadcast their shows worldwide are, naturally, feeling the financial benefits of beaming out their goods to larger audiences. People might often choose to go to the cinema over the theatre for their arty fix because the tickets are cheaper. However, I believe, perhaps naively, that this new trend might come to benefit local production companies as well. If more people are gaining access to stage productions through the cinema, they may be more inclined to go along to a local show, on an actual stage. Some particularly tedious individuals might prefer to see plays or an ballets exclusively in their local cinema, but if a ticket to an opera in HD wins out over a Bieber concert in 3D, then it is a victory for art and for humankind.