Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Wag the dog

In a certain sense, the most distressing thing about next season's Met lineup (on the content of which I'll post soon) is the growing importance of the theatercasts. According to the press release,
“Metropolitan Opera: Live in HD” expands from six to eight opera transmissions: Roméo et Juliette (December 15), featuring Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón; Hansel and Gretel (January 1); Macbeth (January 12); Manon Lescaut (February 16), starring Karita Mattila and Marcello Giordani and conducted by James Levine; Peter Grimes (March 15); Tristan und Isolde (March 22), featuring Deborah Voigt and Ben Heppner and conducted by Levine; La Bohème (April 5), starring Angela Gheorghiu and Ramón Vargas; and La Fille du Régiment (April 26).
All well and good, except for the sneaking suspicion that with every major production eventually being theater- and telecast, principal casting for them will soon -- if it is not already -- be more dependent on how singers appear in transmitted close-ups than how they, well, sing.

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As Sieglinde rightly notes, Peter Gelb has consistently invoked "theatrical" values to justify his production and casting innovations. What of these developments?

At first glance, the moviecasts would appear to be a de-theatricalized version of the art. With viewers isolated from performers in a sterile theater where one munches away on popcorn, there seems to be no room for the audience-performer charge that makes the theatrical experience. (Among the audience itself there is a dynamic, yes, but that's different -- and much less powerful. For some quantification, simply compare the urge to applaud, yell, and scream live versus at a movie.) Theater is not, as cinema, about the appearance of reality but the appearance of the real. There is no substitute for actual, sensed human proximity.

But actually seeing a broadcast was still a surprise. Because of the emphasis on close-ups and two-shots, it turns out that these Met moviecasts actually de-theatricalize not only the operagoing experience but the operas themselves. Characters rarely -- and only briefly -- appear in the context of the stage, as individuals before the stage population (chorus, extras, character parts, etc.) who, from Greek days, represent the audience in the action. The action seems to be experienced from inside the skin of each character -- successively, as the camera jumps around, as if in some dreamlike series of self-transformations. The characters' relation to each other and the whole -- always clear in theater -- is far out of reach.

Of course this helps certain performers while handicapping others. Renee Fleming, for example, performs in this dreamy, undramatic trance anyway, but in the house it's a liability. On the big screen, her Tatyana's muddy physical relation to the stage and world is invisible, and her comfort in performing in close-up (or with one partner) doubles her success. Similarly, I can believe reports of Anna Netrebko's inadequate Elvira being magnetic onscreen. That touch of narcissism that makes her act more snake-charmer than theater is perfect for the camera. (And perhaps both of these ladies have been so raised on the close-up culture that they don't realize that opera isn't cinema?)

But this, then, is the problem: the advent of these moviecasts favors not just looks over voice (more on this anon), but anti-theatrical performers over theatrical ones. So far this still means people who have become famous in live performance (though one could argue about Netrebko), but it may not always be so. Theatricality? Fat people aren't the problem -- non-theatrical presentations are.

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That said, the Onegin performance was terrific, despite the stray leaf on Ramon Vargas' head; whether it bodes ill or no, Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky did remarkably well with cinema-scale touches in their scenes (though the perfection of Vargas' physical assumption was, unfortunately, one of the things veiled by the paucity of long-shots). As a document, these things are valuable -- I'd buy a Blu-Ray version if such existed. It is their effect on the Met's core business that is the worry.


  1. You've still missed one important element in your experience, though: the simulcast. What you saw was the equivalent of watching a football repeat on ESPN (only on the big screen). Or watching a PBS telecast (albeit in public). You know how it's going to turn out. The only real question is, is whether it's as good as you remember.

    Also, the telecast is 1 performance out of an entire run. I don't think you can run a "full-season" opera house where only the telecast matters. You might be able to subsidize/finance the Met radio broadcasts, but to fill the theatre night after night is going to require more, especially when most of the audience cannot really see close up except for binoculars. And if there's no audience in the theatre, then all the rest is meaningless.

    Eventually, if the singing (or the entire production for that matter) isn't up to snuff, the audiences won't come. This is probably especially true after the novelty wears off. (AN is sort of an outlier/anomaly here, b/c like it or not, she brings other attributes to a performance, but even so I think the same might go for her too--she seems to be relying on the same shtick in a lot of her roles). You might get a spike in interest b/c of (insert xyz singer), but the new converts will eventually become more demanding or lose interest. Think "Three Tenors."

    The choices they've made for next year's simulcasts are what's interesting. How many of the "new converts" will appreciate Peter Grimes?

    Theater is not, as cinema, about the appearance of reality but the appearance of the real. There is no substitute for actual, sensed human proximity.

    Again, I think this comes down to camerawork. You see what only what the camera people can show you (and the camera people have to know how to film opera--check out the Barber repeat; there were some miscues in that one); and that affects your experience. For example, in this simulcast, they shot Lenski's aria as closeup (using the slidey cam I think). I think it might have been more in tune with the novel, opera, and production had they used the camera from the Grand Tier, just to capture the loneliness of the moment and its insignificance in the grand scheme of the "Onegin universe." But that's just me. Perhaps they need more true cinematography, with potential camera work rehearsed in advance; not less.

  2. As I didn't watch the original performance (or, as I recall, listen to it), it was new to me. And the rest of the audience too. It doesn't matter, anyway: as excited as we get among ourselves, there's still no connection to the performers.

    As I say, there is some odd shadow of dramatic effect in the transmission arrangement -- and it's best in an ad hoc setting, like Times Square, than in a space with its own indelible identity -- but it pales to the real effect of "theatricality". No one stands up, starts yelling, and throws confetti at a screen -- and for good reason.

    "Eventually, if the singing (or the entire production for that matter) isn't up to snuff, the audiences won't come."

    Yes, that's the problem. But "eventually" is a very long time. In the short run, audience numbers are more dependent on habit and perception than quality. No non-fan saw Jenufa, but enough people wanted to see The First Emperor that it's displaced an actual opera for next season.

    At any rate, with the broadcasts both new and a box office hit, they cannot but loom large in the mind.

    "Again, I think this comes down to camerawork."

    What's more plausible: Brian Large gets fired and the Met switches to continuous long shots with relatively few close-ups, or Gelb and the Met keep doing what actual viewers want to see?

    Mind you, I don't automatically assume things will go to hell; if administrations continue to remember that opera is a niche product requiring, as Gelb says, theatricality, the dog may indeed wag its own tail. But it is naive to think that the reverse temptation is not there, quite strongly, by default.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.