Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Artificially-flavored opera product II

In a recent interview, new San Francisco Opera director David Gockley mentions some of the innovations -- already, it seems, in use in Houston -- he intends to introduce to the house.
Q Will you install those giant plasma screens in the balconies?

A Yup. Soon. We're scoping out locations. We have deals to be made with our unions, which I don't see any real problem with. And we've got to get some technology in our disposal. But there will be a lot of that during my time here, a lot of outdoor casts, OperaVision in the theater, Webcasts, iPod casts. The like. We're going to move into the 21st century of high definition, audio-video technology.
Technological replication and dissemination certainly extracts something from an operatic performance, often something valuable -- how bizarrely fortunate are we to have a (watery) fragment of Muzio's Tosca from the very opening of the War Memorial Opera House? To have webcasts and podcasts from all major houses is long overdue.

But the unique quality of opera -- what, I believe, guarantees its market life as a niche luxury for as long as companies remain true thereto -- is what can't be so reproduced and extended: the costly, laborious, and very human live presentness of operatic performance. To substitute some technological facsimile for this presentness -- because I very much doubt that the screens will be unobtrusive enough to ignore -- subtracts essential value from those balcony seats affected. People therein will, it's true, hear the unmediated sound and remain within the dramatic circle of feedback, but the visual (and visual-dramatic) element will be substantially denatured -- much more than by the distant addition of a supertitle screen. It is important we see a person at risk, not a mere glow on glass.

The experience in the more expensive seats won't, I'm sure, change. Until, perhaps, audiences selected by and accustomed to video assistance decide those expensive seats aren't so good without it...

*     *     *

But maybe someone who's actually sat in Houston nosebleed can tell what it's actually like. The venture makes me wonder if Gockley much did himself.


  1. They put these in after I left Texas but I'm inclined to agree with your thought about binoculars. I don't remember exactly how you put it, but it seems like it would create a disconnect between distance of hearing and distance of seeing.

  2. I agree that it devalues the most irreplacable aspect of opera - the live performance that is still at the core of the opera experience.

    Where are the podcasts and videocasts of opera performances? Why has the Met not started releasing "Saturday Afternoon..." as a podcast, even just by going through the (incredible) archives?

    If they don't, someone else will. We're already talking about it at my university... wouldn't it be funny if it was the student singers who brought opera broadcasting into the 21st century, along with all the publicity that that entails?

  3. Archives are very, very difficult because of all the releases required. The unions, too, have long been an obstacle.

    It's not just broadcasts, though -- I believe the Met has in-house soundcheck tapes of every single performance for decades. Probably pretty rudimentary, but hey...

  4. I used to LIVE in the Houston balcony, and those giant screens were often very helpful.

    I sat in the middle, so I could look at either the right one or the left one. I usually looked to the left.

    During a "Don Carlo," we got a close-up of the Page's face. I saw a mustache. I would never have noticed this detail without the screen. Then, I spent the rest of the opera wondering why someone with enough hormones to grow a mustache still sounds like a soprano. Why not a tenor?

    During the long orchestral moments, the screens would often let us see close-ups of the conductor.

    One drawback was seeing blobs of spittle fly out of mouths. This was effective during rage and vengeance scenes, but during a love duet....well.....

    Of course, when they malfunctioned (flickered, separated into pixels), it was very frustrating. And you would have loud people behind you telling their partners that the screens weren't working.

    The last time I attended, however, those screens were gone. And I realized I could live without them.

    The dress circle has (or had) three small TV monitors mounted overhead for people to watch. I don't know if they have also been removed.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.