Adapting Opera in the Age of COVID: From “Grand Rights” to “Synchronization Licenses”

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Think of yourself as Ian Rye, CEO of Pacific Opera Victoria (POV), my hometown opera company. You’ve been planning ahead for the next season, and advance planning is very much a requirement in the opera scene. The operas have been selected— Die Walküre, Death in Venice and Don Giovanni–costumes and properties designed, lead singers lined up, subscriptions sold and advertising readied—and then COVID hits. You are initially shut down for a few weeks, so the opera Carmen that you were planning to mount is put on hold. Everyone holds their breath, waiting for the storm to pass. But it doesn’t. The 2020 season is gone, but what about the company? There are expenses to meet—staff, artists, office—and no revenue except some additional grants from government. More challenging is the fact that you have an ecosystem to maintain; the artists who want to work, not just for financial but for professional and artistic reasons. Once the bond of shared artistic creation is broken, people will drift away. As the summer of 2020 brings little relief on the COVID front, you re-imagine the offering. Let’s take it online. Let’s make the next production a film version. And that is what happened.

To keep the company together, to give everyone a common goal and purpose, and to stretch the imagination, POV decided to stage an opera, and film it. Not filming it as in a video recording of a live performance, but creating a film version of a new opera, The Garden of Alice, by Canadian composer Elizabeth Raum. You can get more information here. That sounds pretty straightforward; turn what would have been a live performance into a film. (The company’s concert series were also being filmed and put up for digital distribution.) But creating a de novo filmed opera such as “Alice” was taking things to a new level, and while there clearly would be artistic and logistical challenges in going from one genre to another, most of us would not think about some of the other less obvious challenges, such as union issues and copyright.

When it comes to performers in live theatre or opera, most of them (in Canada) are members of Canadian Actors Equity Association or (CAEA). Film actors are members of a different association, ACTRA. But when you take live actors and turn them into film actors, the same artists are represented by a different union, with different fees and distribution rights. This was a new experience for many of the artists but it was worked out fairly easily. Less simple were the copyright issues in going from live to film.

Copyright is a pretty basic concept, but the execution and implementation can be complex. The concept is straightforward; when creators (authors, artists, composers, etc) create an original work, they own it and have the right to control its sale, reproduction and distribution, subject to certain limitations such as duration and fair dealing or fair use. However, in many works there is more than one rights-holder. Think of a recording—there could be a songwriter (of the lyrics), a composer (of the music), and a performer or performers, all of whom have contributed to the creation of the work. A book could have an author and an illustrator. The overall copyright for the work could be held by a record label or book publisher, who would have acquired the rights. In such circumstances, this simplifies matters when it comes to commercialization of the work. And then there is the issue of the rights themselves, which depend on the nature of the work. Rights can be limited geographically and by means of distribution, e.g. live performance, audio visual, digital and so on. Each of these various rights is licensed separately and carries different conditions and royalties. This is where it gets complicated for an organization like Pacific Opera Victoria.

In the case of opera, the clearance of rights starts with what are called, in the trade, “grand rights”. These are the fees paid to an artist and a publisher for the right to a live performance, but only certain live performances. As explained in this report, “Untangling the Bundle: Grand Rights vs. Small Rights”, grand rights works can be put into two general categories;

“a) Works conceived to tell a story with words and music such as musicals, operas, and oratorios. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, Berg’s Wozzeck, and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex are examples, and

b) Existing or commissioned works that are used in certain extra-musical contexts, such as with choreography, stage action, or as part of a play.”

Just as an aside, “small rights” are fees collected by Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) , such as the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Inc, (BMI) in the US, the Society of Canadian Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) in Canada, by PRS in the UK and so on. Many of these PROs have reciprocal agreements with each other. Their function is to collect fees from music users and distribute royalties to the composers and appropriate publishers.

The definition of whether a work is covered by “grand rights” can be tricky. For example, (again citing “Untangling the Bundle”) a gala evening of arias from different operas in concert do not implicate grand rights because standalone arias and numbers can be treated as small rights, as are instrumental excerpts of operas and musicals, because there is no “dramatic performance”.  On the other hand, a full concert performance of an opera, even without costumes, dialogue, or movement, or a performance of a song or a selection of songs from an opera or musical, with the singers in costume and in character, would be a grand rights issue. Got it?  But this is an “aside” because in the case of converting live opera to a filmed version, it was not a question of “grand rights” versus “small rights” but rather yet another type of rights, “synchronization rights” (aka sync rights).

According to Songtrust’s music glossary, synch rights are “payments made to a songwriter or music publisher for permission to use a song in “sync” with visual images on a screen. More specifically, sync refers to the use of a song in television, movies, and commercials. Sync royalties are generally a one-time sum paid directly to the publisher.”

With respect to sync rights, ASCAP notes that “Often, the music is “synchronized” or recorded in timed relation with the visual images. Synchronization rights are licensed by the music publisher to the producer of the movie or program.”

For POV, venturing into the realm of sync rights was entering new territory, and they worked with a clearing house in the US (Easy Song Licensing) to get clearances for works in the concert series. In the case of The Garden of Alice, they were able to obtain all rights directly from the composer. It was a big change for a local opera company whose traditional concerns had been to perform locally and fill the house to getting licenses to distribute an audio-visual work internationally. It presented challenges, but also opportunities for new revenue streams.

In the case of The Garden of Alice, a new opera that has never been publicly performed, there is an opportunity to find distribution partners who could give it international exposure. There obviously would be a high degree of Canadian content (Cancon), which would make it attractive to Canadian broadcasters seeking to fulfill their “Cancon” obligations, but the basis of the story is well known internationally and there could be many distribution opportunities in other markets. At the very least it could be distributed directly from the POV’s website on a “Pay per View” (PPV) basis. While there is always risk with a brand new production that has not been tested with audiences, it makes eminent sense to launch the film venture with something new. Film versions of famous operas abound, and the POV would be offering nothing unique. If the foray into filmed opera is successful, future productions could be eligible for various forms of media funding from sources such as the Canadian Media Fund, a multi-million dollar fund established to promote Canadian AV production, adding to potential revenue streams from traditional operatic funding organizations.

All this demonstrates the need for adaptability and flexibility when it comes to producing the arts. The POV’s film venture has been a creative way to keep the company operating despite the challenges of having no live audiences (and no revenue) during the pandemic. There are many challenges to mounting a successful opera season—selecting the right program, lining up key performers and musicians, creating costumes, building sets. Added to these are the pandemic challenges arising from pivoting to a new genre and producing a new product, among them navigating the rules of copyright. But the company has risen to the task.

As Ian Rye says, “It’s been a learning experience but an exciting one. It is a bit early to say how successful our film experiment will be but it’s become a common goal around which the whole company has come together”.

I am sure that it will be a success and hope to see The Garden of Alice one day in the near future from the comfort of my living room.

© Hugh Stephens 2021. All Rights Reserved

One thought on “Adapting Opera in the Age of COVID: From “Grand Rights” to “Synchronization Licenses””

  1. An interesting blog, Hugh. And the way you stickhandle through all the intricacies of copyright is truly impressive.

    Evan

    Like

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