La Monnaie has been providing a programme of online operas for years
Lots of opera houses opened their digital doors for the first time during the coronavirus pandemic, but Royal Opera House La Monnaie in Brussels has been providing an online programme since 2011. Productions are available online for at least three weeks after each final performance – free to watch, for everyone. ‘We’re subsidised by the Belgian Government, so actually by all Belgians, and therefore want to make our performances available for as wide an audience as possible,’ explains Jo Nicolaï, Head of Recordings and Audiovisual Projects.
La Monnaie first started digitally recording its performances in 2006 – not intended for the general public initially, but rather to digitally preserve this heritage. Five years later, the idea came about to post the performances online, and to do this in such a way that it made viewers at home feel as if they were in the one of the 1180 plush red seats in the centuries-old Great Hall.
Inspiration from New York
The source of inspiration for this idea was pioneer Peter Gelb, Director of the New York Metropolitan Opera. When he took up this position in 2004, the theatre was struggling with dwindling audiences. This had to change, Gelg decided, by allowing the theatre to operate beyond its own walls. And now you can watch live broadcasts by the Metropolitan Opera in more than 2000 cinemas worldwide.
Fortunately, La Monnaie had nothing to complain about in terms of dwindling audiences, but its regular crowd wasn’t exactly very young. ‘Opera has a rather traditional character. I myself first went to the opera on my 11th birthday,’ explains Nicolaï. ‘Sitting on a stone bench in the Verona Arena, I saw La Gioconda by Ponchielli – and was immediately enchanted. But if you haven’t grown up with opera, you don’t usually buy opera tickets even in your 30s and 40s.’
In 2011, the personnel gave the directors their plans for digital productions. They emphasised that online audiences could complement their theatre visitors and allow La Monnaie to break out of its quite conservative cocoon by appealing to a new audience. But the directors had cold feet. ‘They couldn’t see the value of making performances available online for free to begin with.’ They ultimately decided to change the quality of the digital productions, but not yet to take the step of offering these performances online.
The turning point was the production of Wagner’s Parsifal, when La Monnaie approached the Italian playwright and director, Romeo Castellucci. ‘He became really enthusiastic when he saw our recordings,’ says Nicolaï, ‘and exclaimed that he wanted a copy on DVD, so that he could show it at the Palais des Papes in Avignon.’ Castellucci was artist in residence there at the time, and it became a digital success story. The DVD was published and suddenly everyone was interested in going in this same direction.’
The online provision of productions has now become an essential part of the business, with a 20-man production team recording around 10 shows every year. The team is comprised of a mix of internal and external resources – the video director and camera operators are always hired in.
They always prepare the recordings meticulously. The video director talks through the whole performance with the theatre director before watching the opera live in the theatre several times. A lorry equipped with a complete mobile recording studio comes to record each performance on multiple evenings. The video director supervises the five or six camera operators in the theatre, and images and audio are recorded separately so that everything can still be fine-tuned in the post-production stage, which Nicolaï’s team takes care of. The cost of this complete process is around €30k per production, not including the permanent employees’ wages.
‘There’s nothing better than a live show,’ says Nicolaï. ‘Being together with 1180 other audience members for a performance in our majestic Great Hall is an incredible experience. But I still often hear: “I watched the opera online as well, and that’s when I really came to understand the whole story.” If you’re actually in the theatre, you don’t always know exactly what the theatre director wants you to see. But our video director can guide you through the story perfectly. The camera work puts you closer to the singers, and the subtitles intensify your opera experience.’
Mozart is the online audience’s favourite. ‘We posted a Mozart opera online last weekend, and when we looked at the statistics two days later, we could see there had already been 26,000 online viewers,’ explains Nicolaï. ‘For comparison: Mozart was performed in La Monnaie for 10 evenings and attracted a total of 11,800 visitors. ‘The statistics also easily show us which countries our visitors live in, how often they click, and how long they stay watching. But they’re not completely watertight. If you watch on YouTube, for example, you don’t even need to log in.’
‘We’re hoping to convince music publishers that an opera in the year 2020 is also a digital production, and that digital accessibility of opera is the new reality.’
The recordings are also offered to radio and television broadcasters. ‘Not to make a profit,’ explains Nicolaï, ‘because we’re a public cultural institution, so our earning model is focused on exposure. You can listen to operas at La Monnaie some 25 evenings per year on Belgian radio. Broadcasting opera on TV is still difficult because many broadcasters work with two-hour timeslots, and operas last significantly longer than this on average. We’re hoping to offer our performances through TV stations’ streaming platforms soon, though. Our website visitors are already interested in opera, but streaming platforms can help us reach new audiences that aren’t watching or going to the opera yet.’
As with all digital productions, it’s important to clear the rights when publishing an opera online, and Nicolaï knows all about this. ‘La Monnaie is an opera production house. The creative team, such as the opera director and the light designer, are under contract with us, and these contracts state that we can only stream productions on a limited basis. Music publishers also have a part to play here. Even though Mozart lived 220 years ago, publishers still retain the rights to his works even today. So we need to renegotiate for every production, performance and streaming. Negotiating about Wagner is very complex, for example, and the performances themselves, and streaming them, are expensive.’ It’s difficult to provide exact amounts for streaming. ‘The costs differ from an amount per stream to a full purchase, and can vary from anything between €1k and €20k.’
Nicolaï believes music publishers still have to get used to the idea that opera houses are increasingly wanting to offer and store their own productions digitally. La Monnaie, for example, would like to make some of its digital archive of its own productions publicly accessible. ‘So that people can still enjoy Parsifal by Castellucci in La Monnaie 100 years from now.’
That’s why making it easier to offer digital heritage online is high on Opera Europe’s agenda. This is a collaboration between European opera houses, including La Monnaie and the Dutch National Opera. ‘We’re hoping to convince music publishers that an opera in the year 2020 is also a digital production,’ explains Nicolaï, ‘and that digitally accessible opera is the new reality.’
This text was taken and translated from the DEN website. Text and interview: Geraldine Molema (DEN).