‘Having every best seat in the house’ is how some describe seeing opera live on screen, and recently we’ve had the opportunity of seeing the nuts and bolts backstage, too. It was a bold initiative of English National Opera and Sky Arts to take the cameras behind the scenes on the first night of Jonathan Miller’s new production of La bohème for Sky Arts 1, while simultaneously broadcasting the opera itself live on Sky Arts 2, and it was quite a challenge for the backstage crew: how do you keep your audience gripped for two and a half hours when all the real action is happening the other side of the set? Jonathan Miller himself was less than enthusiastic at the prospect: ‘It wasn’t my idea,’ he commented, somewhat testily, hoping quite understandably that the television audience wasn’t going to be continually switching over to check what was brewing behind the scenes. But for those of us tuned in backstage for the duration there was hardly a dull moment as we hovered in the wings, swerved through cramped corridors between artists’ dressing rooms and into the cavernous recesses of the stage in pursuit of the various players in this particular drama.
Sky presenter Penny Morris was in the driving seat, conducting a series of enthusiastic, if slightly dizzy, interviews with anyone happy to talk to her: singers, who gamely chatted to camera as wigs were tweaked and beards adjusted, right up to their call on stage; children in the chorus, thrilled at a late night-out and a party afterwards; off-stage chorus master and orchestral players, relieved that no untoward incidents — a horse apparently once fell on to a percussionist in the pit — had so far marred the evening; dressers and make-up girls applying the finishing touches, stage managers cueing lighting and singers on and off; and stagehands cranking the ingeniously interlocking set into action. Gliding silently through this well-rehearsed m
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 4, 2009