You really lose something watching opera in a cinema.

But you gain a bit, too. Like insight into life as a performer; interviews are generally conducted with the stars, the conductor and others before the show and at interval. It’s a more intimate experience in many ways; the close-up camera work conveys the real pathos of the art form (and the unappreciated acting chops of the performers). In a 3D screening, you’ll be dodging spittle from the soprano when she hits her glass-shatteringly high note.

And while a premium orchestra-level seat for the real thing will cost in excess of $200, you can watch a performance in your local movie palace for about a tenth of that. Plus there’s popcorn. And the tuxedo can stay in the wardrobe.

More opera companies are filming performances for cinema sessions, reaching new audiences and creating new revenue streams for their epic, increasingly unprofitable shows. The Metropolitan Opera, New York City’s world-renowned company, broadcasts live across the United States (and on delay here). London’s Royal Opera House is doing it in 3D. And even our own Opera Australia is taking Sydney Opera House performances to suburban megaplexes.

The Met’s high-definition screenings take in Rossini, Strauss, Wagner and Verdi as part of its 2010/11 season. Tonight, the final screenings of a more contemporary work — John Adam’s 1987 political ode Nixon In China. The four-hour show is perhaps not for opera novices — Adam’s minimalist score challenges the ear — but is regarded as a classic of opera’s recent canon.

(Note: unlike Hollywood remakes, cinema screenings of opera are no cut-down, dumbed-down compendiums. Every minute of the performances is shown, including intervals in real time. There’ll be multiple trips to the candy bar.)

This weekend, opera aficionados will replace their opera glasses with the plastic 3D variety for screenings of Georges Bizet’s epic Carmen. This is opera at its grandest, with dozens of performers (and animals) in a lavish Royal Opera House production. As one review said of the world-first:

“Opera in your face, the 3D production used great aerial but tight shots right over the heads of the performers. Some gestured front and center right into the 3D camera with their hands or pointing a sword. One feels the immediacy almost as if at a live performance, it can be so realistic it’s startling. One is so close the performers appear to be in one’s lap.”

Now you don’t get that in the opera house cheap seats. Pass me the jaffas.

The details: Nixon In China plays cinemas in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Canberra and some regional centres tonight — more details via The Met in Australia website. Carmen in 3D starts this weekend on 40-plus screens across the country. Opera Australia performances will be in cinemas later this year.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey