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Video killed the opera production?

I thought a lot, after my “Walküre” review last week and some of the reactions to it, about whether posting video clips of opera stagings is actually helpful to a discussion of a production. The short video of the Achim Freyer staging that I posted at the end of the review gives you a kind of Cliff’s Notes version of what went on. It doesn’t, however, communicate any of the things I most liked about the production, which had to do with the use of physical space and the pacing -- things that had to do with the experience of being present, physically, in the room -- and I’m not sure the snapshots it affords are an adequate representation of its strengths.
(read more after the jump)

I wonder how well the Freyer Ring would be served even by a complete video. Mark Swed last week reported in the Los Angeles Times that there was as yet no funding for a video version, which is a shame, because this production, though flawed, is important enough to be documented. But it is so specifically designed as live theater that I’m not sure your typical opera-video direction, complete with close-ups on the singers and significant shots of the orchestra at distracting moments, would do it justice.

I also had pangs of conscience after linking to the clip of the Hans Neuenfels “Nabucco,” which was a cheap shot: it’s easy to laugh at a chorus dressed as bees, wiggling their abdomens in time to the music. But of course it’s meant to be funny -- even the most deluded stage director understands that a chorus of dancing bees has a humorous element -- and out of context it’s almost meaningless. Since I have been known to criticize Youtube for cheapening the discourse about serious stage direction by reducing it merely to “gotcha” moments which everyone can gleefully pile onto, and I know that Neuenfels is more serious than that, I feel guilty at having participated in the piling-on myself.

One reason to link to the videos at all is that opera companies themselves are putting them out there more and more as a way to promote what they’re doing. Which is well and good; but it’s a mistake to equate them with a movie trailer in terms of giving you a sense of what to expect when you get into the house. Yet since many productions don’t travel, such videos are the only way we have to get an idea of what they’re like.

Anyone have examples of telling videos of particularly notable stage productions (with links)?

By Anne Midgette  |  June 14, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  music on the Web , opera , random musings  
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I had imagined that given Domingo’s and Freyer’s (and Conlon’s) international statures that the LA “Ring” was going to be recorded on video. I still hope it will be. The L.A. wider contemporary arts community -- and the international contemporary arts community -- certainly still has the resources for this documentation project.

I might have made more of an effort to catch one (or two) of the L.A. Ring dramas live if I had known that it wasn’t going to be filmed.

While I certainly enjoyed Peter Brook’s all-night “Mahabharata” live, in Brooklyn, more than I enjoyed the subsequent film version shown on PBS during the late Reagan or early Bush years, I was very pleased that PBS filmed it, as I was able to interest family and friends in catching this PBS production - shown over three evenings (I believe).

I also recall that the English National Opera and BBC had originally planned to televise Birtwistle’s and Zinovieff’s “Mask of Orpheus” in 1986, but that the plans fell through because of technical matters. Or maybe that was the plans for BBC to televise Birtwistle’s and Harsent’s “Gawain” from the Royal Opera in 1991. Birtwistle’s “Mask of Orpheus”, “Gawain”, “Second Mrs. Kong”, “The Last Supper”, and “The Minotaur” are all not well reflected on YouTube. Whether this would increase interest by American opera companies in these powerful mythic works is another matter.

A German bass-baritone has posted a satisfactory sample of Birtwistle’s very early, and now non-representative, Punch and Judy music theater work:

There is also available a satisfactory introductory clip to Peter Ruzicka’s very powerful Paul Celan opera, although the Bremen production probably lacks the radical video projections of the Dresden premiere of 2001:

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 14, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

"I thought a lot, after my 'Walküre' review last week and some of the reactions to it, about whether posting video clips of opera stagings is actually helpful to a discussion of a production. [...] I’m not sure the snapshots [they] affor[d] are an adequate representation of [the production's] strengths."

They're typically not — most particularly with a production as visually complex as the Freyer _Ring_. Part of the problem is that, generally, *any* worthwhile opera staging is "specifically designed as live theater," not just the Freyer staging, and loses materially by being transferred to the two-dimensional plane of film. Another problem is that one of film's greatest technical strengths, the closeup, is a positive liability in filming staged opera when used too freely, and must be employed with utmost circumspection; something most directors of filmed staged opera have yet to learn. It's what's called the "establishing shot" that needs to be employed more frequently in filming staged opera — just the opposite of its normal use in film — yet another thing most directors of filmed staged opera have yet to learn.

Those technical considerations aside (there are more, of course), a major problem with video clips of staged opera productions is that the movie trailer model is simply the wrong model to use for such clips. A sustained take of one or two (or however many) telling scenes or episodes is the way to go. That will more surely give the viewer of the clip a fairer taste of the sense of the production.


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | June 14, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

I find that ROH does fairly good trailers that give a sense of the style and sound of a production.

Because they're very much 'trailers'- often no longer than 1'30"- I think the expectation is built in that it is a tiny snapshot. They've complemented this with short, snappy interviews about opera in general (everything from foreign languages to the importance of comfortable shoes).

They've obviously spent a lot of time and money on their online content and the end product is very visually appealing. I hope they're getting something out of it.

How this could be translated to a company without the ROH's resources I have no idea.

Posted by: ianw2 | June 14, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

I've often felt that the best opera productions don't do well on film specifically because of the issues you mention. In fact productions that do well on video (like many of the Met productions over the last couple of decades) do so because they are dreadfully dull to look at in the theater and the techniques of video editing give them visual interest they don't otherwise have.

Freyer's work has a history of looking less than spectacular on video. His 2007 production of Chin's Alice in Wonderland ( was beautiful in Munich but the video was hollow and bland without being able to preserve Freyer's sense of space. (The cast here also dealt with an even more steeply raked stage than in his LA Ring, relegating most all of the vocalists to a trough at the foot of the stage.)

Posted by: outwestarts | June 15, 2010 3:25 AM | Report abuse

Austrian and European composer Johanna Doderer is writing an opera on the Native American and American military hero and tragic figure Ira Hayes:

[Perhaps a re-nationalized Washington National Opera will co-produce the opera with the Vienna State Opera.]

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 15, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Here is a hastily put together trailer of a production of Händel’s AGRIPPINA from the Saarländisches Staatstheater in Saarbrücken.

Another trailer of this production features a whole aria:

If done well, a trailer can be an incentive to opera-goers. On the other hand, Wagner’s RING may be harder to ‘trailerize’, because it’s such a long, complicated piece, that people may be more confused than intrigued.

Posted by: loge1 | June 16, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

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