Opera companies’ ‘forced’ embrace of digital content during the pandemic has, I think, caused many opera lovers to reevaluate their own relationship to ‘recorded’ opera, be it audio or visual. For most of us I’d venture, our initial exposure to opera was probably via recordings, be they polished studio products, television or radio broadcasts, or more recently, DVD and then cinema HD transmissions. So, opera has long been consumed ‘one step removed’, but usually as an adjunct to the ‘live’ experience. In our Spring 2021 issue’s ‘Final Word’, John Gilks is quite blunt in stating that opera companies will need to make a strong ‘value proposition’ for live performances if they’re to survive the awful, damaging closures of the past year. His opinion seems to fly in the face of a particularly loud segment in the industry that feels audience renewal will increasingly become dependent on opera companies embracing digital formats.
Spending a lot of time over the past year in front of a computer screen, with my radio and CD collection as constant opera companions (yep, I still have shelves heaving with the things), I’ve had time to reflect on the incredibly important role that ‘recorded opera’ has played in my enjoyment, and education in the artform. Like many Canadians, I fully attribute catching the opera bug to CBC’s radio broadcasts. I can pinpoint the moment the lightbulb went on—it would have been a mid-’80s radio broadcast of Handel’s Rinaldo from Festival Ottawa. Yes, back in the day when the CBC regularly recorded, and broadcast live opera from companies and festivals across Canada. That fueled a voracious appetite to hear more opera—at first, mainly recorded; then increasingly, live—that has continued unabated for 30 years.
the CBC’s assumptions about what audiences want now seems even more out of touch than when we met.
Today, the job of educating Canadians about the arts appears to have been largely ceded by our publicly funded broadcaster onto the shoulders of individual organizations…none of which remotely have the budget, or reach of the CBC. When Opera Canada met with some CBC execs a couple of years ago to discuss possible collaboration, they made it very clear the CBC had no interest in broadcasting Canadian opera productions. We were told that video wasn’t a great medium for capturing staged productions. In light of the incredible popularity of HD transmissions the world over, YouTube videos, not to mention the vast amounts of digital content our opera companies are currently producing…the CBC’s assumptions about what audiences want now seems even more out of touch than when we met.
Whatever one’s feelings about ‘live’ vs ‘digital’, at least a generation of Canadians has missed out on national exposure to our great companies, and even worse, on the learning opportunities that only a well-funded, national broadcaster like the CBC can provide. This neglect has become even more apparent in the present pandemic situation where the gaping hole is all too obvious.
Gianmarco Segato is Editorial Director of Opera Canada. This piece was originally published in our Spring 2021 issue; for this and the rest of our exclusive content, peruse our subscription options.