HD and the live experience
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.
| November 9, 2010; 10:36 AM ET
Categories: opera, random musings
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