Tuesday, 16 November 2010


     We opera buffs know that the great thrill of opera is hearing beautiful voices fill a theater without amplification. I lived through the golden age of opera singing and had the joy of seeing and hearing Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Birgit Nillson, Leonie Rysanek, Carlo Bergonzi, Richard Tucker, Franco Corelli. Recently I was lucky to hear the first performances at Covent Garden of Jonas Kauffman and Vittorio Grigolo. Of course, I have also witnessed vocal disasters. There is nothing like live opera. At the same time, I discovered opera as a kid through Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts, have collected opera recordings for most of my life and have enjoyed opera on television from the old NBC Opera Theatre through Met telecasts. So I have enjoyed "canned opera." I know you can't quite judge the size of a voice through microphones though you get some sense of the quality of a voice.
     OK, I also have to admit that I don't like going to the Metropolitan Opera House. It is too big. Even in orchestra seats (and I certainly won't pay what they're charging for those seats now), one can feel far away from the stage. You hear well almost everywhere, but the performance is miles away. It's one reason the Met depends so much on spectacle. One also has to deal with the Met's interminable intermissions which can be longer than the acts they follow or precede. I much prefer the smaller Royal Opera House where one feels even from some of the cheaper seats a connection with the stage. The orchestra and chorus are as good as the Met's. The same stars appear there. I must say many of their productions are hideous to look at but some of the most egregious, like the new DON CARLO, are shared by the Met.
     All this is to say, I prefer going to my local movie theater and watching a Met HD telecast to going to the Met. Yes, the sound is amplified, not live, but you are seeing opera as musical theater. And it is more fun watching the backstage scene changes than sitting in the dark in the opera house for five or six minutes waiting for the scene change. We get those silly, but fun interviews with the principal singers, though some background on the opera would be more interesting. At the BORIS broadcast, the audience at the London IMAX roared with laughter at Patricia Racette's ineptitude as a compere. When one singer started to say something substantive about the opera, she shut him up and moved on to another silly question.
     One does get a sense of the aesthetic of an opera house. The Met's aesthetic is visual splendor. If one is paying $330 for a seat (the price of an orchestra seat these days) one wants to see where his money went. Sets and stars. The gigantic set for DAS RHEINGOLD which had some great visual moments, though I didn't feel the characters were very well defined. The gorgeous costumes for BORIS GODUNOV. Recently the DON PASQUALE had extremely heavy, realistic sets which took a fair amount of time to change when lightness and simplicity would be better. I remember the old 1950s production of the opera on a revolving stage so scenes moved swiftly. Last night we went to a Netherlands Opera production of LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST. If the Met privileges realism, many European houses offer much more stylized productions. Act I of this FANCIULLA seemed to take place in an urban leather bar instead of the wild west saloon called for in the script. This made Minnie something of a fag hag to a bunch of leather queens.  The third act was in an automobile junkyard until Minnie appeared on a set out of an MGM musical looking like Jean Harlow. Musically the performance was fine, but directoral interpretation often came between the audience and the ultra romantic music. The audience in the opera house applauded when the set suddenly changed to a grand staircase and the MGM lion was projected in the background. The audience at our London cinema laughed. I know this Netherlands approach is mild compared to what goes on at Bayreuth and other German houses. I realize that I am something of a traditionalist but I have yet to see a contemporary directoral vision that improved on what the composer and librettist created. Most of all, directors are terrified of sentiment. They should stay away from Puccini.   
     The problem with HD transmissions on a big screen is that looks become important. Opera is traditionally an art form in which one has accepted that singers were not going to look like the romantic roles they played. When I first started going to opera the singers were hefty and homely. Some tried to act while others stood there. Now acting is important as are looks. Anna Netrebko is a fine singer and a lovely woman. She's no Joan Sutherland, but would Sutherland be accepted on the big screen? Would Pavarotti be as big a star now as handsome tenors like Juan Diego Florez, Jonas Kauffman or Vittorio Grigolo? What would HD do with chubby, homely Carlo Bergonzi who just happened to be a great singer, but did all his acting with his voice? We accept a hefty singer like Eric Owens as a Wagner villain, but poor, chubby Stephanie Blythe looked absurd as Wotan's wife. No wonder he slept around a lot. This may not matter in the cavernous Met, but it closeup it matters a lot.
      The big question is what will these HD trasmissions do to live opera? Will people in Atlanta pay the high prices to go to the Atlanta Opera when they can see the Met at their movie theater for $20? The big question for the Met is whether people will pay outrageous Met prices when they can see the production better in a movie theatre. Will live opera be only for the very rich?

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