The greatest singers - Maria Callas, Billie Holiday, for example - are famed for inhabiting a role but singer-songwriter Clara Sanabras is perhaps taking things too far.

She once boarded a boat in Norway, at the insistence of a composer, only to have the vessel crash. She then went on to write a musical based on Shakespeare's The Tempest - another day, another shipwreck - but insists neither was Method preparation for her New Zealand visit.

It's hard to believe; after all, she's here to perform with the APO for a live cinema screening of the movie Titanic, where the orchestra plays while the movie runs. Although Sanabras was hand-picked by the late composer James Horner to perform his music for a touring show of Titanic in concert, she was initially reticent.

"My fear was that it was not quite one thing or the other, but actually people come out transfixed. It's almost like the film is being made right there and then before your eyes. The energy of the orchestra enhances the film for people. They're not just watching a film like in a cinema, something's happening to them."

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Titanic Live premiered at London's Royal Albert Hall, with The Express describing it as "an absolute triumph" and saying it brought the multi-award-winning film to life in a beautiful new way. In Auckland, Titanic Live features a children's choir, some 75 musicians and Sanabras singing and playing mandolin.

The increasing frequency of such live cinema shows indicates there's an audience.

Between now and March, the APO performs Titanic; a French Hot Club-style jazz band plays behind the charming animation The Triplets of Belleville for Auckland Arts Festival and you can hear the NZ Symphony Orchestra during the NZ Festival in Wellington when it accompanies Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope.

"To me it feels like a grand night out that I normally don't get to experience," says Gareth Davies, a film buff who has attended several live cinema shows. "It doesn't feel like a music concert, it doesn't feel like a movie, it feels unique. I get a sense the audience is sitting up and taking notice, and they tend to be a bit older and dressier than a standard movie.

"I'm not a dress-up guy" - Davies is wearing jeans, a hoodie and a Star Wars baseball cap - "but I definitely dress up more than I would for a normal movie."

He pays more than he would for a normal movie, too - the tickets for Titanic Live start at $99 for adults. That makes sense because the cost of putting on these shows is, according to one insider, "terrifyingly expensive", which is why most are touring packages that employ local musicians.

The players earn their money. It's not easy work, says Eric Rigler, a multi-instrumentalist who has played with everyone from megastars Barbra Streisand and Phil Collins to cult favourites Peter Case and Steve Young.

A Los Angeles resident, Rigler is Hollywood's go-to guy when a Celtic piper is required; you can hear him on numerous movies such as Braveheart and he played the uillean pipes that haunt Titanic's original soundtrack. He's part of the Titanic Live show coming to Auckland.

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"Playing live to film is a huge challenge," says Rigler. "It's good for keeping your skills sharpened but there's no safety net, you've got to be right on the money and you're on the edge of your seat the whole time. As a musician you're always [concentrating] on the conductor; you have to live by the baton and die by the baton."

NZSO associate conductor Hamish McKeich has the job of keeping everyone together for the orchestra's Star Wars concerts. He'll have a lot going on.

"A film doesn't wait for you," he says, "so there's a lot of pressure to hit your marks."

To help, McKeich will have a click track in his ear and a small screen on his music stand showing the film with a time code. Even so, keeping to tempo is difficult.

"Sometimes an orchestra is a nanosecond late or early; you sort of ebb and flow around the beat. It isn't noticeable to most people but I can hear it because I've got a click thumping in my ear."

Other aspects of the conductor's art require similar attention, particularly dynamics because the orchestra mustn't overwhelm dialogue. Pirates of the Caribbean, which McKeich has also conducted, was particularly tricky.

"The sword-fighting sequences are long and there's a huge orchestral score going underneath, but you have to fade down for the sound design to come through and to hear the [characters'] witty comments. There's no room for error."

If that sounds metronomic, the musicians say there is still room for interpretation.

The violinists wield their light saber bows.
The violinists wield their light saber bows.

"I can never do an imitation," says Sanabras. "I can only give my rendition of whatever I'm doing."

When it came to Titanic's big number, My Heart Will Go On, Sanabras went to extraordinary lengths to analyse original singer Celine Dion's sound.

"I watched her do it, note by note, and looked at what she was doing with her cheekbones. She has an amazing technique, so you can learn a lot by observing and understanding where the resonance is coming from. You take that and explore with your own voice, see what you can do, and then you let go. I have to forget about Celine Dion completely, and what comes out is a mixture of reverence to the original and a completely new thing. But it's quite fun to be Celine Dion sometimes."

It's fun sometimes, but at other moments putting on a show like this is clearly stressful for musicians. Why go through the rigmarole? One reason is numbers. By appealing both to movie fans and the orchestrally curious, it's possible to attract large audiences. The NZSO is performing Star Wars twice at Wellington's TSB Bank Arena, which holds around 4000 people, compared with the Michael Fowler Centre's 2200 capacity.

At the time of writing the first performance is sold out. The hope of all orchestras is that at least some of those people will be intrigued enough to attend a classical concert. Davies says he's up for it. "I'd be interested in going to an opera, concert or ballet, entirely driven by the atmosphere and experience of going to a movie with the APO.

"I'm very aware of the orchestra [at a live cinema show]. I'm not musical but I can pick out instruments. I'll watch the flautist and connect what I can see to what I hear and that fascinates me. And I like the whole idea of this giant collaboration."

McKeich uses the term "psychic energy" to describe the effect of orchestras on movie-goers. That exhilaration goes both ways.

"There is a feeling of jumping on a moving train and it's not stopping, you just hang on," he says.

"It's a great laugh, I have to say. I love it."

The Lowdown

What:

Titanic Live

Where and when:

The Civic, January 24 and 25

What: Star Wars: Episode IV —A New Hope (NZ Festival)
Where and when: TSB Bank Arena, Wellington, March 10 and 11

What: The Triplets of Belleville (Auckland Arts Festival)
Where and when: ASB Theatre, March 17