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LONDON (Reuters) - For opera lovers who balk at paying 180 pounds ($270) for a seat in the stalls, or anyone seeking a night out at the movies with a difference, opera houses are increasingly looking to film to boost audiences.
New York's Metropolitan Opera led the way with live broadcasts in movie theaters two years ago, and its "Live in HD" series reached 920,000 people in the 2007-08 season, more than the number who saw performances in the opera house itself.
British opera houses followed suit, and now Russia's Bolshoi Ballet is getting in on the act as demand for access to what has often been seen as the preserve of wealthy patrons opens up.
"We genuinely believe this is another way for people to get access to the art form in a less intimidating way," said Gillian Brierley, head of marketing at Glyndebourne, southern England, which holds an annual opera festival notoriously difficult to get tickets to.
"Now for 10 pounds you can try it. We have very high attendance figures during the festival, but we have an aging
audience and need an audience of the future. And obviously it is less of a risk to pay 10 pounds," she said.
Glyndebourne's foray into opera on the big screen is still small, but this year it tripled the number of UK movie theaters it screened at to around 30 after the success of a pilot scheme in 2007.
The number is determined not only by demand, but also by the limited amount of digitally equipped cinemas in Britain.
"Digital cinemas are pretty limited in the UK and that is going to change, and once you see the UK market becoming digitized you will really find out how big the audience is," said Drew Kaza, digital development director at Odeon cinemas.
Kaza said opera in movie theaters would always be just a niche market for his company, the largest cinema chain in the UK.
"There is good business to be had, but it's not the Holy Grail. It has got a ceiling and we're not there yet ... but it's not displacing James Bond any time soon, that's for sure."
Glyndebourne has decided to concentrate on pre-recorded performances for its cinema initiative, whereas the Royal Opera House has several live transmissions of opera and ballet coming up over the next few months.
"We're not ruling live out at all, but our view is that by filming as well as we can for cinema we have something that goes much wider, and it is less expensive than putting satellite dishes up," said Brierley.
"The other thing that is new this year is the prequel and the trailer promoting Glyndebourne as well."
In other initiatives, nine Odeon cinemas in the UK screened the Bolshoi Ballet's performance of Shostakovich's "Bolt" last month and will feature "The Pharaoh's Daughter" on December 1.
The Royal Opera House's live cinema program announced earlier this year involves 112 cinemas in Britain and Europe, and last month it screened Mozart's "Don Giovanni" free over the Internet.
The company also offered cheap tickets for the opening night of the same opera in September exclusively to readers of the Sun tabloid, in another bid to reach out to new audiences.
Reaction to that plan was mixed, with the best-selling Sun daily calling it "an amazing moment in British culture" but the Guardian newspaper's classical music critic Andrew Clements countered that it "smacked of desperation."
Editing by Paul Casciato