Friday, June 01, 2007

Opera looks at the bigger picture


Dutch video production houses are all the fashion. This week Endemol started a new series of Big Brother in the UK, while over in Holland it launched De Grote Donorshow (The Big Donor Show), which gives three dialysis patients the chance to win a dying woman's kidney, or not. And the Royal Opera House, a dedicated follower of fashion, got in on the act by buying Anglo-Dutch specialist DVD producer, Opus Arte, for £5.7m.

Covent Garden made much PR spin of the story that this is the first time an opera house has acquired a DVD production and distribution company, but in fact the convergence of opera and video goes back more than forty years. In 1966 Leo Kirch founded Unitel to produce video operas, and concerts using the tag-line "music to watch." The company now has a catalogue of more than 1,000 titles, and has pioneered the use of HDTV technology.

Unitel is best known for its catalogue of video recordings by two media aware musicians. Herbert von Karajan, seen in my header photo at a Unitel shoot, is represented by more than 50 hours of video footage, while Bernstein contributed 120 hours of Lenny 'airtime' including a complete Mahler cycle. In 1978 Unitel signed an exclusive agreement with the Bayreuth Festival, and the results of that include the video of the "Centennial Ring" of 1976-1980 produced by Pierre Boulez and Patrice Chéreau, which is estimated to have been seen by more than 60 million people.

Opera houses buying video producers is part of the remorseless vertical integration of classical music that sees orchestras starting their own record labels and the BBC running the world's biggest music festival. And, inevitably, the BBC are linked to today's story. In 2001 the BBC made a deal with Opus Arte to allow the video producer "to make a substantial investment over the next five years into new BBC classic music programmes, as well as licensing both recent and archive classic material from BBC Worldwide", which really brings a one party musical state closer.

Vertical integration may be an inevitable result of the collapse of traditional media intermediaries such as EMI, but it also threatens the spontaneity, risk-taking and individual flair that are essential to the creative process. The sterile corporate speak of the Covent Garden press release, which in just under 1000 words doesn't mention a single composer or opera, says it all - world-class - global market place - licensed brands - digital strategy - global broadcasters - big digital ambitions - creation of a revenue stream - a multiple win ...

The press release also says '£2 million borrowings already in the company have been refinanced through alternative lenders' and goes on to thank, among others, New Boathouse Capital. They are a London based corporate finance advisory business which works in the ruthless world of venture capital finance, and their other clients include the Cath Kidston fashion chain, Virgin mobile phones, and Bunker Secure IT Hosting.

Big business and grand opera may not be happy sharing the same stage. I described above how Unitel, which is still trading, was founded by Leo Kirch. In 2002 his company KirchMedia declared itself insolvent. The insolvency represented the largest insolvency of an enterprise in German postwar history. The next month Kirch sued Deutsche Bank for €100m, claiming that they had damaged confidence in the group and disclosed confidential business information in the process. I hope the Royal Opera House knows it has moved from a garden to a jungle.

Now read about three examples of spontaneity, risk-taking and individual flair that I don't think we will see in the Covent Garden video catalogue -
Image credit Unitel, showing Herbert von Karajan filming Carmen with Jon Vickers as Don José. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

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