ENO chief claims opera screenings don’t attract new audiences

Maggie Brown
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English National Opera artistic director John Berry has claimed the current trend for arts organisations to screen their work live to cinemas in a bid to extend their brand was a distraction from ensuring a company delivers the best live performances possible.

“It is of no interest to me,” he said. “It is not a priority. It doesn’t create new audiences either.”

Berry added: “My time is consumed with making sure the performance is absolutely as good as it can be, and getting that right on the stage, that is hard enough, and that is my focus, on live work.”

Berry agreed that the New York Metropolitan Opera’s current success in screening live operas to cinemas outside of the US, “has caught everyone else with their pants down,” but he said they had pulled away from the competition by doing it with real conviction and investment in the transmission process, allied to their powerful brand.

The Financial Times reported last month that the Met’s live events were generating profits of around $10 million to $12 million a year from ticket sales, which cost about £30 a seat at selected venues in the UK.

Berry added: “This company [ENO] spends most of its time making sure its performances are bullet proof. It takes all my time. Get what you know right; choose carefully anything else. But this obsession about putting work out into the cinema can distract from making amazing quality work.”

He said that the relationship with Sky Arts, which screened Lucrezia Borgia in 3D live last year, was based on doing something, “as and when it comes up”, rather than a matter of course.

Berry’s comments follow claims last month by Sky Arts director James Hunt, who urged arts organisations, such as opera companies and theatres, not to shy away from entering into partnerships with broadcasters.

He revealed that Sky Arts’ partnership with ENO between 2003 and 2009 had not generated one production for broadcast, claiming that organisations like ENO are often fearful that to screen their work on TV would “cannibalise” their audience.

Hunt claimed broadcasting theatrical productions can actually generate an audience for venues, because viewers are encouraged to see a production live on the back of a broadcast.

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster