Sydney Opera House

Opera Australia Films


When the Metropolitan Opera began its live simulcasts in 2006, no one could have foreseen that it would herald the beginning of a new era for all major opera companies. As Opera Australia Recording, Broadcast and New Media Producer, Samantha Russell, puts it: “We came to the conclusion pretty quickly, through keeping an eye on the digital media landscape throughout the world, that opera in cinema signalled a change in the cultural landscape which we could not afford to ignore.”

Consumer culture has changed, with audiences becoming increasingly accustomed to consuming their entertainment when and how they want to, says Russell, a mezzo soprano who came to Opera Australia via Film School. “Live performing arts companies can’t escape the trend.”

Many international companies are now recording their productions for DVD release even if they don’t screen in cinemas. Opera Australia records for cinema, but after a three-month period its films will be released on DVD. The Marriage of Figaro and Rigoletto went into cinemas late last year and are out on DVD this April. Der Rosenkavalier, recorded last year, is due for release in cinemas this July.  

If entering the cinema and DVD market has become obligatory rather than optional, Opera Australia still has to make a profit from the filming venture if it is to survive. Russel says: “It’s a very expensive exercise and we can’t afford to do it well without it paying its own way.” Hans Petri, the former owner of Opus Arte, the world’s premier company for filming alternative content for DVD and cinema, spent three months working with the Opera Australia team and helped it to come up with a business model for the recordings.

“It involved discussing potential sales with local and international television networks, and with cinema and DVD distributors,” Russell says. “As a result, Opera Australia’s venture into these recordings is a calculated risk. A couple of years ago it would have been a very expensive leap of faith.”

Unlike the Metropolitan Opera, Opera Australia is not broadcasting its shows live. Russell says: “The Met invests an immense amount of time and money and people in its live broadcasts, and we just don’t have those resources.” On a recent trip to New York, where she met with the Met’s head broadcast engineer, Russell gained insight into the way in which the company runs its recording process.“In preparation for the live transmission, several camera operators would record the full show, and afterwards there’d be a camera conference attended by the shoot director, the stage director, the general manager, music staff and every camera operator. They’d put together a shooting script for every camera, so that during the live transmission each operator would know exactly which shot they’re getting and when. Nothing is left to chance.”

Opera Australia records two performances on nine cameras, of which two are fixed and remote controlled. “We put it together from that. It’s important to have a second  take, in case some surgery is called for.”

The Opera Australia team consists of experts with whom the Company has been working for years. Camera operators come from Big Picture, which has long been responsible for the big-screen broadcasts for Opera in the Domain and Opera in the Bowl. Director Cameron Kirkpatrick directed several Opera Australia television broadcasts when he was with the ABC. Audio is by the Sydney Opera House’s Tony Cray, a Grammy-award winning audio engineer.

Distribution is by Cinema Live, which is sending Opera Australia’s productions into cinemas in the UK, Russia, Canada and Latin America this year. Within Australia, Opera Australia went into 27 cinemas to begin with. “Now we need to build a following for our films,” Russell says.

This year Opera Australia plans to record the new La bohème, The Mikado, Lakmé and Don Giovanni. As Russell says: “We couldn’t really say ‘It’s not our core business, so we’ll just ignore it’. It’s become part of everybody’s core business.”