- Massenet for the Masses?The Opera Virgins Project
Simulcasting is a nascent phenomenon (just over a decade old), but it has already exerted a significant influence on the exhibition and cultural status of opera. Aggregating the total, virtual audience of my research partners at the Royal Opera House—including viewers of international cinema simulcasts, online streaming, and home video—leaves no doubt that far more people watch ROH productions on the screen than on the stage, with what I will call "opera cinema" comprising the largest distribution channel.1 The emphasis of academic research has been on the aesthetic and commercial dimension of simulcasting: how it transforms opera, and how it affects the operatic ecology. What has received little attention to date is the experiential dimension—a dimension this article seeks to address. After briefly laying out some of the theoretical scaffolding of my research, explaining my methodology, and introducing my focus group participants, the article introduces data from an ongoing audience project, investigating subjective engagement with opera cinema.
Aside from overlooking audience subjectivity, a problem with existing audience research on simulcasting is the emphasis it places on the experienced attendees who make up the bulk of the current audience.2 These veteran opera fans tend to frame their impressions of opera cinema through comparison with the stage, rather than seeing it as something unique. This article sets out to address this gap by presenting data from a sample of novice subjects ("opera virgins"), recruited to engage with simulcasting free of the biases and expectations of experienced opera spectators. Based on these data, I conclude that opera cinema is not regarded as a distinct art form, but as a mode of engaging with opera. Moreover, most of my novice respondents regarded stage opera as broadly superior. However, opera cinema is a unique and evolving cultural experience that my novice respondents identified as having distinct advantages over the traditional auditorium setting, particularly relating to the greater legibility of dramatic action afforded by the cinematic editing. Note that all subjects' names have been changed for publication to protect their privacy. [End Page 284]
My research began in 2015, with a project involving twenty subjects, who watched The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (simulcast as part of the Royal Opera House Live series) in both the Covent Garden auditorium and a cinema of their choosing. A second phase involved groups of subjects watching the Royal Opera House Live simulcasts of Boris Godunov (2016), Lucia di Lammermoor (2016) and Werther (2016) in two separate locations and two categories of cinema (a multiplex and an independent or art house venue). In this latter phase, I sought to determine whether the contextual factors of region, venue, and repertoire exert any influence over audience engagement with opera cinema. My main research tool was Q Methodology, which is specifically designed to describe tendencies of experience within a small audience sample.3 I sourced hundreds of items from a wider cultural conversation around opera cinema (press coverage, fan blogs, commercial research data, and so forth), creating a "concourse" of stimuli, consisting of written statements. Subjects asserted their level of agreement with each statement on a sliding scale of þ4 (entirely agree) to –4 (entirely disagree). I then grouped these data into "factors" (groups) of subjects with similar responses to opera cinema.4
Opera Cinema: A New Medium?
Some theorists (including communications scholar Paul Heyer) suggest that simulcasting transforms opera into an entirely new medium. I do not think opera cinema meets this description. Although it objectively transforms stage opera—through the incorporation of cinematic syntax, televisual elements like recorded vignettes and a live presenter, and a twitter feed from the international audience—my research suggests it is broadly perceived as an ancillary product to stage opera. I posit that the primary function of opera cinema is to provide what the Metropolitan Opera has dubbed the "next best thing" to the opera house for experienced audiences and tempt newcomers to the auditorium with an idealized simulacrum of the "real thing."5
The hybrid experience of opera cinema opens broader issues around the question of media ontology. While they are not...