Last night the ROH beamed Massenet's Cendrillon into Trafalgar Square where a huge crowd listened to those mellifluous mezzos Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote in rapt respect. What's that? Massenet's Cendrillon? No, we'd never heard it before either, but the ROH, the performers and the doughty director Laurent Pelly have apparently done it proud: thus Massenet has claimed his moment in the moonlight alongside the much more predictable Puccini. Last week's Trafalgarcast of Madama Butterfly attracted a crowd of 8000 - with another 2000 spectators turned away because there wasn't enough room for everyone in the UK capital's largest square.
Such is the popularity of opera that's it's outgrown its theatres. At Bayreuth, with about 1800 seats, it's almost impossible to get tickets, even if you can afford it. Glyndebourne, with around 1200, is probably not truly untouched by the financial crisis, but it can certainly look that way. Those are, admittedly, the slenderer-sized jobs, but even so Covent Garden, as we just noted, is packed out.
ENO has the biggest theatre in London and fewer appearances by the DiDonatos and Kaufmanns that draw the hordes; ergo, it's easier to get in. As for its ballet runs, I've managed to get hold of a good seat to see Osipova and Vasiliev. But when the reviews came out yesterday it seemed apposite to book in as PDQ as possible. The Coliseum, too, can sell out - witness the visit of Terry Gilliam to Berlioz.
So is it just the star names that sell? They don't hurt, that's for sure. Yet Madama Butterfly didn't involve megastars at all; instead it featured a comparatively little-known Latvian soprano, Kristine Opolais, who stepped into the role at very short notice after the scheduled singer fell ill. The budding diva is no longer so little-known. With Cendrillon, it was the other way round: a virtually unknown opera that, with Joyce and Alice aboard, and a production by the director who worked wonders with La fille du regiment a few years ago, was able to pull and get its coat.
As you'll know if you read my piece in the Independent a few weeks ago, I've some reservations about live opera on the big screen. For the audience it's not truly live; and because the stage demands one approach and film another, you see all manner of things that you'd prefer not to, while the sound can be flattened, or simply made too loud. I'm reliably informed, incidentally, that opera houses risk losing rather than making money on cinecasts - but in this day and age, it's expected of them for "access" etc. Still, what's the alternative?
Bigger opera houses? The chances of a Met-sized theatre being built in the UK are zilch: no money and no space. And huge theatres have their drawbacks; after seeing Eugene Onegin some years ago from the back row of the Met's balcony and finding I needed a NASA-sized telescope, I've never wished to try the place again; I'd rather go to the cinema. For similar reasons I avoided the Royal Ballet's Romeo and Juliet at the O2...OK, maybe I need a visit to the optician. I hope I'm less short-sighted in observing that these performances and screenings are going down very, very well. Now that they've 'bedded down' in public consciousness, there's a real and increasing demand. If you build it, they will turn up with their sandwiches and a bottle and have an excellent evening.
I've always maintained that we, the public, are not as stupid as some people like to think. When there's an artist of genuine star quality around, and when music truly speaks to us - no matter its genre - we go and enjoy. You can manufacture artists all you like, with sexy photos, fake-fur marketing and so forth, but ultimately that will be futile if the talent is not there to support it. The star has to be able to cut the mustard on stage, because there you can fake nothing.
Nothing is more exposing than to step forward and perform. Yes, I've witnessed some total charlatans receive standing ovations from time to time - but these are not the musicians whose performances are being beamed around the world to six or seven-figure audiences, or for whom Londoners are ready to camp out overnight on a cold Covent Garden pavement. You can't fake a Kaufmann. And people whose artistry is of that level are in short supply. They always were and they always will be. There is such a thing as magic.
The picture at the top, of Angela (credit: Jason Bell), is from the ROH's 2012 Olympics campaign and says it all.