Hard though it is to believe, it is nearly seventeen years since we went backstage at the Royal Opera House in the BBC fly-on-the-wall series The House. Michael Kaiser, who later became general director of Covent Garden, summed up reactions to the series: ‘The House only confirmed the general belief that the Royal Opera House was, at best, incompetent, and, at worst, completely devoted to the needs of the rich.’ Seventeen years is a long time in the media (and everywhere else), and how different was the backstage picture on offer in Royal Opera LIVE broadcast online on Monday. I live-blogged the event in a post that has proved pleasingly popular, but – not least because this felt like a game-changer in the ways cultural organisations work with the media – I want to return to it here and offer further thoughts.
The House was a tightly-edited six-hour documentary series shot on film with a slyly suggestive voice-over from Jancis Robinson that exposed (or created) tales of backstage disorganisation and barely contained chaos. It was produced by skilful documentary makers and was pitched at a mass television audience, almost all of whom (apart from enthusiasts with a VHS recorder) watched it at the same moment across six weekly episodes in January and February 1996. Such was the perceived damage done to the Royal Opera House’s reputation that arts organisations remain very wary of inviting broadcast cameras behind-the-scenes.
So how was Royal Opera LIVE different? It was a sprawling 10 hour-plus mix of live and pre-recorded material broadcast online by the Opera House’s own website, the Guardian and The Space. There were on-screen hosts (Kirsty Wark and Suzy Klein) and occasional commentators (conductor Tony Pappano and critic Tom Service at times) but all of them played it ‘straight’ with none of the distanced knowingness that Jancis Robinson brought to The House. And the dominant sense was of professionalism not panic.
Crucially, Royal Opera LIVE was produced and controlled by The Royal Opera. This was the House and its people doing it for themselves. So we saw what they wanted us to see – much of which was fascinating, of which more anon – and strands that were so central to The House, like the box office and the Board, were invisible.
The fact that it was a ROH production is of a piece with the broad shift in the relationship between the arts and broadcast media that has been playing out over the past six or seven years. A decade back, broadcasters had more or less a monopoly over two crucial things: production capability and distribution capacity. But now cameras, editing systems and skills are far more widely dispersed and ways of getting media to audiences are far more disparate and diverse. ROLive was one of the most substantial markers of this change to date, along with Tate Shots, NTLive and indeed other activities by the Royal Opera House.
What the broadcasters do retain (near) monopolies of are production funding and ways to access mass audiences. ROLive found its own way to funding, but did it achieve any kind of significant audience? I thought related Twitter activity was surprisingly light, but I very much hope, given that public funds from Arts Council England supported the event, some figures will be shared with the rest of us. On the other hand, we are still waiting for a real sense of who watched and used The Space across last summer, and so I’m not hopeful that those will be made public.
As a punter, I would say that the broadcast was a qualified success. Parts were fascinating and brought me closer to the processes of producing and putting on opera. Among the highlights for me were the Eugene Onegin rehearsal in the morning, the model showing for La Donna del lago and Pappano’s master class with a young singer. These sequences showed us something unfolding in real-time and invited us to make our own sense of what was in front of the camera.
Frustrations included the reliance at times on pre-packaged videos which ‘sold’ me various worthy activities of the ROH, like the community chorus (I saw this twice). Some of the audio did not work as well as it ought to have done and I would have appreciated much clearer sign-posting about what was coming up and how long it would last – like the 70 minute-plus ‘highlights’ package towards the end of the day.
I was surprised (and disappointed) by how little integration of parallel social media activity there was, beyond a few carefully selected Tweets flashed up on screen. And as we moved towards the evening’s performances – which for online viewers was a behind-the-scenes version of Act III of Die Walkure – the broadcast seemed to lose its nerve, cutting to a lengthy chunk of last year’s Maestro rather than staying with a fascinating tour of the dressing rooms with Boheme conductor Mark Elder.
Overall, however, it was bold and brave and must have taken an age to assemble given the rights and permissions that would have been required. Bravo, then, and I have little doubt that we’ll be seeing encores of the essential idea from others in the coming months.
The full archive of the day remains on The Space for just one further day, after which highlights will be available via the Guardian for the next six months.