How can a “dying art”, as many refer to opera, or an old-fashioned dance style, suddenly attract new generations and reach the largest public ever?

By entering the Multimedia Age, of course!

Some ballet and opera companies have been broadcasting their shows live to cinemas worldwide, such as the Bolshoi Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House. Emerging Pictures lists most of these broadcasts.

Last year, I was contacted by the Royal Opera House/Royal Ballet (ROH) to provide Portuguese translations for a few of their broadcasts, which were starting to be shown in a nationwide cinema chain in Brazil. It was a great experience, and now the 2012/2013 season has started and I’m in charge of all the translations in Portuguese. So I’ll talk more about the ROH because I know first hand how their cinema broadcasts work.

This technology has been in place for quite a few years now. In 2003, I saw a live David Bowie concert which was broadcast to cinemas worldwide. I was in Brazil and not only did we see the live concert, but in a Q&A afterwards we were able to ask questions from our theater, which Bowie heard and answered from London. Considering how amazing that experience was, it’s surprising –almost appalling, actually– that it didn’t become a much more common entertainment option.

But it seems that live cinema broadcasts are finally coming to stay. The ROH started broadcasting in 2009 to theaters in the UK; Brazil was included last year and Japan in the new season. They now broadcast to 240 theaters in 32 countries, in 6 or 7 languages, if I’m not mistaken.

This video emphasizes the advantages of watching ballet and operas in the cinema.

The images and sounds captured in high definition, and the subtitles in every language are all broadcast live from London. The translations are made a few days (or, in some cases, a few hours) in advance. In the case of operas, we translate the libretto, of course, but there are also trailers and short films about each production, showing rehearsals, interviews and other valuable information about the production, which are relayed before the show and during intervals. There are also on-screen messages to viewers (for instance, encouraging them to tweet their comments on the show) and a summary of each act they’re about to see. Some of the tweets sent by viewers are also shown on the cinema screen during intervals.

Because the images are generated live, the subtitles cannot be edited permanently onto the film. They are displayed manually, live, by the ROH’s surtitling department. (“Surtitling” is the name for subtitles shown in theaters, usually above the stage.)

The ROH interacts with its viewers in all the most popular social media. They have their YouTube channel, Facebook page, and Twitter account. They have just released some impressive figures about the 2011/2012 season, but these are sure to get higher and higher each year. Worth noting are:

  • Around 300,000 people saw the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet in cinemas
  • When the Royal Ballet did their live streaming day (a whole day in the life of the Royal Ballet streamed on YouTube, unedited), the audience hit 1 million
  • Their audience is getting younger, with a high number of people watching opera and ballet for the first time in their lives, since seeing them in cinemas is much cheaper and accessible, and less intimidating, than going to an opera hall.

Reaching a new audience and using all the advantages offered by social media are clearly an important goal. And one of the attractive aspects of social media and multimedia is the closer contact between stars and fans, which the ROH explores as well, as can be seen in the video below.

New audiences and new media also entail using a new language. Subtitles have to be short and simple, so they can be read fast enough to allow the viewers to understand what is being said and still fully enjoy the gorgeous images in front of them. In the case of operas, this means that the translations use a more modern language, without obscure or obsolete words. The original text is still intact in the performance, but following the full libretto during the show would be impossible. So the subtitles are there to speak the language of movie goers, help them to fully enjoy the experience and not feel out of place.

The ROH is a model client for translators. The work before each presentation is intense and often on weekends, but they pay accordingly. They looked for recommended translators with experience with subtitles and who feel comfortable with the themes and terminology involved. Considering the magnitude of this operation, the cost of the translation is probably negligible, and their priority is to provide high quality to their viewers. They know the value of good, specialized audiovisual translation.

This final video shows their broadcast department, which I find particularly fascinating.

I think there’s a lot to learn from this successful experience by the Royal Opera House and other ballet and opera companies. Audiences are now global, new technology and media can bring new life to old and new art forms –including money, yes, the internet is not killing the entertainment industry, quite the contrary!– and professional, specialized translation services can bridge the language gap.