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Posted at 10:36 AM ET, 11/ 9/2010

HD and the live experience

By Anne Midgette

In the New York Times, Dan Wakin recapitulates the HD phenomenon: more and more opera companies and orchestras are doing live performance broadcasts.

Here's the section that caught my eye: "Aesthetic issues are another matter. Already at the Met, consideration is given to how sets and costumes will look on screen. Singers at such broadcasts say they are acutely aware of close-ups."

This is the real question to me: how far is what happens on stage modified for the sake of the broadcasts? But this is also the point at which the discussion tends to get clouded.

Let me be clear: for all of my criticisms, I'm generally a fan of the Met's HD broadcasts, and of the whole idea of broadcasting. I think it's done a lot to generate excitement and interest in opera. I still question whether the broadcasts are actually reaching new audiences or just catering to people who already love opera, but in a way, that hardly matters: build it and they will come, say I, and if the broadcasts are selling out I think that's a good thing for the art form.

But I'm curious about how far the broadcasts actually do affect live performance. Rehearsals at the Met are said to be geared to the camera, now, and some singers feel they’ve been asked to modify what they do on broadcast days. Peter Gelb's denials that the Met casts for the simulcast seem to me a little bizarre; since the company is putting so much energy into these HD transmissions, are we supposed to think they don't cast, at least in part, with the broadcasts in mind? And wouldn't it be stupid of them NOT to?

What clouds the discussion is the emotion surrounding the idea of whether or not this is a bad thing. We who love opera get into a kneejerk attitude of revering the live, the great, the loud; and, we say, recording technology should be subservient to that. Yet recording has difficulty adequately documenting some aspects of opera, particularly the visceral thrill of big, powerful singing. I've talked before about how singers with smaller voices have tended to do better in terms of recording careers. (I'd walk miles to hear Dolora Zajick or Stephanie Blythe in the house, but their recordings, to date, haven't been their strongest points.)

So no: the HD broadcast isn't going to bring across the visceral thrill of live opera in the way some of us have been lucky enough to experience in the house. But we -- I -- can perhaps get a little too caught up in the role of defenders of the true faith. My ideal, certainly, is big singing, heard live, in a big house. True confession, though: what hooked me on opera when I was a teenager -- and "hooked" is a mild term for the head-over-heels passion that transpired -- was Franco Zeffirelli's film of "La traviata." I'd been to live opera before; I was generally interested in opera; but the experience of seeing that film was so powerful that not only did I feel I came out of the theater a different person, but I still remember the texture of the seats in the movie theater, all these decades later. Today, I could make a number of withering criticisms of that film: it wasn't ideally cast for the roles from a vocal standpoint, there were cuts in the score, and it certainly didn't offer live opera. When I was 17, though, I didn't care. I certainly hope that other people might have similar experiences watching, perhaps, a live Met broadcast in Times Square -- even with singers I would now consider less than perfect.

At bottom, the issue is one of priorities. Is the point to bring across the traditional joys of opera, or to create a sophisticated entertainment experience? Does this have to be a choice? Shouldn’t the Met do everything it can to make sure the broadcast is as good as it can be, since it’s going to be around for a long time? Does this process inevitably put attention on the staging at the expense of the singing? How far do you think the broadcasts are affecting what you see on stage?


Meanwhile, I submit a few recorded documents of the past that are more artificial than any contemporary Met HD broadcast, with the cameras making the singers far more self-conscious: TV appearances by Joan Sutherland, Franco Corelli, Cesare Siepi. Warning: watching these in the morning may make it very difficult to concentrate on getting any other work done.

By Anne Midgette  | November 9, 2010; 10:36 AM ET
Categories:  opera, random musings  
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Two comments to a generally well-written, thoughtful post.
1. Of course how people look and act on screen should be part of the Met's casting process. Part of what made the "Carmen" telecast so compelling was that not only did Elina Garanca sing wonderfully, she looked great. One of the good things about the Met telecasts is that the singer/actors actually have to pay attention to how they look and act — great, from my perspective.
2. As is the case with the Met and will be the case with the upcoming Los Angeles Philharmonic theater telecasts, if you think the telecast will hurt the "live" experience, choose a different performance. I've been at Disney Hall programs that were telecast via PBS's "Great Performers" series and never thought the cameras were a distraction; theater telecasts are just an extension of that.
I have relatives who live across the country from Los Angeles, just as I live across the country from the Met. The chance to see these telecasts is a great opportunity, from my perspective and I hope they continue to be successful.

Posted by: BobTatFORE | November 9, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Well done in posing and framing these issues.

I think your key question is: do you have to choose? I think and hope not.

To me, an interesting parallel is sports. Eight Sunday a year, more than 90,000 people go out to FedEx Field to see the Redskins play at home. Season tickets are handed down to succeeding generations. These people pay outrageous sums for parking (makes the Kennedy Center look like a bargain), and food and drink. They battle epic traffic. Most would have a better view if they stayed home. And, yet, not one of them would be elsewhere. The experience is all about seeing it live and being part of the crowd.

The game you watch at home on TV is identical. The score is the same, but the viewing experience is completely different. On TV, you get close ups of the players, analysis, stats, etc that you don’t get at the stadium. But, the small screen doesn’t carry same impact of being part of the crowd. Same game, different options. Take your pick.

Pro sports have made concessions to the broadcasters (TV timeouts, anyone?) but only the purists would argue the games have suffered in terms of quality. Think about broadcast opera in this context.

Moreover, the opera broadcasts reach a new audience. The people who pay $25 to see a Met HD broadcast (or go to the Nationals Park to see a WNO free simulcast) probably won’t be paying $150 for a ticket.

No one should have to settle for a second rate product. But, we have to acknowledge that, like football, everyone brings a different set of priorities to the experience. Some like the staging and drama, others the singing. Some just care about the music. Others come to see and be seen. My priorities are probably different from yours. But, as long as the performance reaches each of us, it has to be counted as a success.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | November 9, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Great post Anne. newcriticalcritic's analogy to football makes me think that at some point opera/concert broadcasts may (if they have not already) be pay-per-view. I think many more people would watch at home vs. going to multiplex film theatre.
I also agree that any format that can evangelize for opera/classical is a good thing.

Posted by: kashe | November 9, 2010 7:25 PM | Report abuse

Spot on post. I'm also, on balance, a fan of the HD broadcasts, even though they completely disinterest me personally. But I do think you make two particularly pertinent points- that the broadcast must always follow the live performance and never vice versa; and how many new fans are these broadcasts bringing? For example, I gather the slow introduction of Met broadcasts in the DC area had something to do with not wanting to cannibalise the DC area subscribers who travel to NY, but how much crossover is there?

Posted by: ianw2 | November 9, 2010 7:28 PM | Report abuse

I agree that live opera is without parallel. My favorite is to see a smaller company do live opera (I am a volunteer for Greenwich Music Festival, and am blown away every year by the incredible experience of being 20 feet away from live--and rarely performed--operas. There, done with my shameless plug!) But I've not often been to the Met, as it's too expensive for close up and too far away when affordable.

So, an HD experience--I've had only 3--is not a bad thing. But it varies. If I were a set designer, HD would make me pull my hair out. For the live audience, the set designer thinks of the overall stage. But for HD, a set designer might need to think like a movie set designer. How can they be possibly be reconciled for the same opera? I saw Das Rheingold on HD and it was quite distracting to be reading the part numbers on the ends of the moving parts of the Machine, and to sense that the singers seem a bit wary of their mechanical cast member. And I admired Bryn Terfel's restraint in not grabbing that hank of hair in front of his left eye to pull it out of the way. When the camera was farther way, the story was more believable and more magical, interestingly enough.

The most effective of the three HD performances I saw was the free showing of Der Rosenkavalier in Lincoln Center this Sept. I was completely taken in by the story and song and paid no attention to street noise or moving people. We saw Turandot, too, but it was not as successful, as I think it's not as intimate an opera. And thus not as successful in HD. If a closeup in HD is to convince me, there had better be some emotional connection between the singers. I didn't see that in Turandot but it was there in spades in Der Rosenkavalier. I'm guessing Turandot would have been much better seen from afar.

HD is wonderful, certainly, but I hope singers and set designers and directors pay it no attention.

Posted by: JoanneKB | November 9, 2010 8:10 PM | Report abuse

I generally only see live opera because I live near the Met and it's easy and not much more money to get on the subway and see it live. One of the most visceral experiences I had with an opera, however, was watching a film of Tosca in my college Italian class. It was on a tiny TV, and we were sitting in wooden desks, however I was so shocked and enthralled by the story. I've since seen it at the Met two more times, and neither experience compares. Maybe it was because that was my first time seeing Tosca or maybe I was so close to the faces that I connected more. Either way, I can relate to your experience with the film of La Traviata.

Posted by: vmarshmellow | November 9, 2010 11:25 PM | Report abuse

I was introduced to opera (and hooked on it) by what must be thought of as antediluvian in the context of this discussion: a radio broadcast from the Met. It was more decades ago than I like to remember, but it happened when my high school French teacher assigned the class to listen to the Met's broadcast of "Tales of Hoffman". Part of its effectiveness as an introduction was undoubtedly the enthusiasm of Milton Cross's announcing and the delightful commentary of Boris Goldovsky (the quality of Met broadcasts has declined sadly in this aspect), but I think the reproductive medium -- radio, TV, HD in the theater, even a CD -- matters less than the person's personal receptiveness to the magic of opera when the exposure comes.

Memories of that Saturday matinee always flood back whenever I hear "Hoffman" today and probably explains why I have four recordings of it. But the most memorable performance I experienced was a "Mastersingers" by the Met in the old Boston Opera House (Reiner conducted). During an intermission I met a critic I knew and asked him if the performance was really as good as I thought. He responded, "No. Better!"

Being in the theater where the performance takes place is undoubtedly best, but take in HD theater telecasts, "Great Performances" broadcasts, radio broadcasts whenever and wherever you can!!

Posted by: wsheppard | November 10, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

I've enjoyed HD broadcasts of the Met and the National Theatre. However, I don't view such broadcasts as full substitutes for seeing the performance in person, especially for musical events. The sound is noticeably different; the sound systems in the theaters I've been in don't seem to be optimized for music, as opposed to movie sound effects. When I watch a sports event, I don't really care about the sound--and in fact the inability to hear at home the very loud music or other announcements played at most stadiums is a significant plus.

So, while I hope the HD broadcasts will continue, to enable me to hear things that would otherwise be costly or impossible for me to go to, I hope that artistic directors won't make too many alterations to the live experience to accommodate the broadcast. So far, in the performances I've been to that I knew were being recorded, I haven't noticed any.

Posted by: JohnCD | November 10, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

It strikes me that, of all operatic composers, Wagner's works might best benefit from the cinematic treatment since, to me, he thought in "cinematic" terms. Here are some stage directions from the libretto of "Die Walkuere": "Siegmund takes a long draught from the horn, then returns it to Sieglinde. For a long time the two remain silent, looking at each other with growing interest." Tough to make that compelling from the last row of the balcony in a large house, wouldn't you say? This scene sort of cries out for the sort of nuanced facial expressions best captured with a zoom lens.

Posted by: gwinters1 | November 10, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

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