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Posted at 12:06 PM ET, 03/ 7/2011

Thoughts on screened opera: Apres Carmen, le deluge?

By Anne Midgette

In Saturday's Washington Post, I had an article on the new "Carmen in 3D" (Carmen in 3D, one dimension short). (Go read the article. I'll wait.)

One thing that struck me about "Carmen in 3D," as I said in the article, is that it's opera houses rather than film directors who have led the charge in the current vogue for opera on screen. We have the classic 1954 "Don Giovanni" film, or Zeffirelli's "La traviata" or Rossi's "Carmen," but they all remain one-offs; now, we're seeing a veritable flood of opera in movie theaters, and it's all filmed versions of stage productions. The people directing these films are charged with the task of documenting a live event, not with creating a work of art.

This creates a funny dichotomy: on the one hand, opera houses are tending to hire more telegenic casts, but on the other hand, what we're seeing in the cinema is not about creating the illusion of film, but rather the illusion of theater. The directors of these films have the task of representing or documenting existing productions, rather than creating works of art: Julian Napier, who directed the "Carmen in 3D," is a 3D specialist rather than an artiste. (The actual production is by Francesca Zambello.)

This does nothing to advance the aesthetic of opera as an art form - or does it? The popularity of these broadcasts has to show that something is working. Where a "naturalistic" opera film has to figure out how to deal with the idea that people sing instead of speaking, a film that documents a staged production presents the artifice upfront. Indeed, the artifice is underlined by the backstage interviews, the peeks behind the curtain, that have become a requisite and expected part of the opera-broadcast experience: this is all a reminder that we're seeing a performance, rather than something that purports to be "real."

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with documenting performances -- especially if it proves to be opera's salvation (the jury is still out on that). But I do think that bringing 3D into the equation highlights a kind of philosophical contradiction: you're using state-of-the-art technology to replicate the experience of interacting with a centuries-old art form. I'd love to see what a real director-artist could do with a 3D film of Britten's "Midsummer Night's Dream" or Verdi's "Aida" or, heck, Wagner's "Ring" -- what would happen if the technology were actually unleashed in the service of advancing the form artistically, rather than merely finding a flashier way to preserve what's already there. But I can't argue with success. The point of opera broadcasts and DVDs as we're seeing them today is to underline the primacy of the live experience -- just as we critics are always saying we want it to be.

What are your thoughts on the 3D "Carmen" - did anyone see it this weekend?

By Anne Midgette  | March 7, 2011; 12:06 PM ET
Categories:  opera, random musings  
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Comments

Ms Midgette, my husband & I were lured by the 3D gimmick and saw Carmen 3D on Saturday. We were disappointed; like you, we did not find the 3D add anything to the viewing experience, except for the annoying glasses we had to wear. I prefer the Met's Live in HD simulcasts which has the real-time excitement.

Posted by: ariadne1 | March 7, 2011 2:47 PM | Report abuse

The historic Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in the historic Bolton Hill section of Baltimore is known for it twenty-or-so magnificent Tiffany windows and for its history of fine organists who have presided over its four-manual Skinner organ. There are organists that regard Ernest Skinner’s work as a page from the past but this instrument is truly a national treasurer. Skinner Organ Company’s Opus 819, from 1930, has four manuals and 45 stops. It was tonally finished by G. Donald Harrison. It has been carefully maintained and has not suffered the alterations that so many fine older organs have. Forty-five stops would normally be a large two-manual instrument or a quite respectable three-manual but the stops on this instrument are well-chosen and justify four manuals: they are ideal for the wonderfully resonant, reverberant space of Brown Memorial. The pipe scales are generous and the sound is rich and full. Virgil Fox (1912-1980) was the organist at Brown Memorial during his tenure as head of the organ department at the Peabody Conservatory from 1935 until 1946. The current organist is Dr. John Walker, who is himself a very musician.

On Sunday, 6 March, Brown Memorial hosted a recital entitled “Celebrate the Skinner” commemorating the 80th anniversary of the organ. The program was:

Janet Yieh, organist
Te Deum by Jean Langlais (1907-1991)

Miss Yieh, a student of Dr. Walker, attends high school, plays very well, and we are likely to hear more from her in the future.

Marvin Mills, organist
Suite No. 1 for Organ (Fantasy, Fughetta, Air, and Toccata) by Florence Price (1887-1953)

Final from Premiere en Re mineur, Op. 42 by Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911)

Michael Britt, organist
Fantasy on Nursery Tunes by Robert Elmore (1913-1983)

The Bells of St. Anne de Beaupre, from St. Laurence Sketches by Alexander Russell (1880-1953)

Sortie in G Minor (sic) by Lefebure-Wely (1817-1869)

John Walker, organist

Come, Sweetest Death by Bach (1685-1750) This is the famous arrangement by Virgil Fox which he developed on Brown
Memorial’s Skinner.

Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue by Healey Willan (1880-1968)
Healey Willan was a Canadian composer and organist with a large oeuvre but I just couldn’t sense where his Introduction , Passacaglia and Fugue was going.

On 22 MAY Frederick Swann will be the guest organist for a performance of Haydn’s The Creation, conducted by Dr. Walker, with Brown Memorial’s Soloists and Chancel Choir. I heard the same artists perform Mendelssohn’s Elijah in MAY 2009 and I think that this will be a performance that you won’t want to miss!

Posted by: georgiendave | March 8, 2011 10:28 AM | Report abuse

I went to the filming of this Carmen back in June 2010. Do you know they had FOUR cameras - 2 huge ones on cranes over the stalls, one on rails across the front of the stage and one hand-held on the stage itself? Having now seen the film as well as the live production three times I have to say I don't think it was worth the effort. 3D is NOT like a real theatre experience - no buzz, no feeling of the power of the singers and some weird 'layered' effects. I very much enjoy the Met HD broadcasts because they are live and I don't expect I'll ever get to New York. Opera in the cinema is great to widen the audience and it allows people to see a wider range of productions, but this sort of 3D doesn't seem to me to add much.

Posted by: MaryinLondon | March 8, 2011 10:48 AM | Report abuse

I went to the filming of this Carmen back in June 2010. Do you know they had FOUR cameras - 2 huge ones on cranes over the stalls, one on rails across the front of the stage and one hand-held on the stage itself? Having now seen the film as well as the live production three times I have to say I don't think it was worth the effort. 3D is NOT like a real theatre experience - no buzz, no feeling of the power of the singers and some weird 'layered' effects. I very much enjoy the Met HD broadcasts because they are live and I don't expect I'll ever get to New York. Opera in the cinema is great to widen the audience and it allows people to see a wider range of productions, but this sort of 3D doesn't seem to me to add much.

Posted by: MaryinLondon | March 8, 2011 10:49 AM | Report abuse

OPERA VIVENTE in BALTIMORE. This is last minute, but I only learned of it a week ago myself. This is a wonderful pocket opera company, with a fully staged production of Handel's "Rinaldo" in a lovely church space just off Charles Street. There are only two more performances, Thursday and Saturday evenings at 7:30. Go to www. operavivente.org for tix. This is at the highest level of professionalism. Not one, but TWO male altos, dueling it out with a female alto in a lower register! A foxy sorceress. Half-naked crusaders. An accomplished 10-piece baroque orchestra. And just gorgeous singing. What's not to like? At three hours, you do have to love this stuff, but anyone who is willing to come out of there thinking, "Now, I GET opera", should not miss this experience. They will be putting on the unknown Puccini work, "The Will-O-The-Wisps" in May. But get thee to Balmer this week! There's a nice little cafe, Bistro Marie Louise, right around the corner at Charles & Read Streets for a bite beforehand.

Posted by: wmtheomann | March 8, 2011 10:57 PM | Report abuse

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