A selective guide to arts commentaries in print and websites elsewhere.
Introduction to Broad Street Review, plus biographies and contact points for our editors and contributors.
See a list of coming appearances by BSR's writers.
Live opera vs. high-definition screeningsBY: Steve Cohen 02.03.2009
Which is better: Live opera at the Met in New York, or a high-definition transmission at your local movie theater? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Why not get the best of both worlds, as I do?
Lucia di Lammermoor. By Gaetano Donizetti; directed by Mary Zimmerman, with Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala. High-definition screening at selected theaters, February 7, 2009 at 1 p.m. www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/broadcast/hd_events_next.aspx
Opera at the movie house:
The Metropolitan Opera’s series of live transmissions to movie theaters, now in its third season, has expanded to 11 transmissions in 2008–09, up from eight last season. These high-definition productions are being seen in 850 venues and countries as far-flung as Brazil, Colombia and Romania. Attendance last season was 935,000. Ticket sales this season have already exceeded 1 million, with three productions still ahead.
But some of my Philadelphia friends who often travel to see operas at the Met in New York have yet to see one of the Met’s high-definition transmissions. One friend tells me he prefers “the real thing.”
He’s missing a lot.
I, too, go regularly to the Met. But you can’t beat– you can’t even equal– the wonderful close-ups of the singers that you get with the video cameras. Nor can you get the backstage shots, showing the shifting of scenery and the performers preparing to go on.
On the other hand, human voices projected from the stage provide thrills that can’t be approached anywhere else. And the visceral feel of bows on strings is different when you’re right there. The Met has a wide stage and pit, and the spreading-out of the orchestra offers a lateral spaciousness that reveals inner voices within each section.
A different sound
The sound in the movie houses is different, and inferior, perhaps because the screening rooms are narrow. Their loudspeakers transmit more effective sound at movies like Sweeney Todd, which I saw at the same venue. Perhaps films use lower frequency orchestrations as well as booming special effects, whereas operas need more bloom at the top for the high notes of singers and strings and their overtones. (To be sure, that deficiency in the sound won’t bother 99% of patrons.)
A few times I attended the same opera with the same cast in two venues: at the Metropolitan Opera and at the multiplex cinema in King of Prussia (where, incidentally, demand has been so great that sometimes the opera is beamed into two screening rooms). I found this double dose worthwhile and I recommend it. First, it provides an additional opportunity to see and hear; and, second, it provides extra dimensions.
In the production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin there was an intensity of golden light on stage that the cameras couldn’t quite capture. On the other hand, the movie-theater audiences saw the facial expressions of the handsome Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin and the beautiful Renee Fleming as Tatyana.
It worked for Busby Berkeley
Sometimes the vastness of the set makes a production look more impressive in the house, as was the case with The First Emperor and Doctor Atomic. But sometimes all that space creates an emotional distance that’s bridged only when the cameras focus on smaller sections of the set, as was the case with The Damnation of Faust. In this Berlioz work, movie theater audiences got to see electronically ramped-up flames in one scene that were less intense on stage.
On occasion the video director will provide special angles that can be striking, as when Gary Halvorson lifted his cameras to shoot down on Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna in their bed in Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet. In this case Halvorson borrowed a gimmick from Busby Berkeley, and it worked. In other operas, the cameras have moved around and behind the singers to good effect.
Intermission features in HD include interviews and documentaries. One thing that I miss is the Opera Quiz, a favorite on the Met’s radio broadcasts, teasingly dubbed “The Nerd Quiz” by my wife, who loves it nevertheless. I wish they’d include it on some of the video transmissions.
An older audience
There’s a unique excitement going to Lincoln Center, ascending those curved staircases beneath the sparkling chandeliers and mixing with the crowds. But there’s also camaraderie at the movie theater where people arrive an hour early, talk amongst themselves and sometimes make new opera-loving friends. They remind me of the standees at the Met who wait for hours in lines and bond with each other in the process.
I recommend these HD transmissions, but as a supplement to the Met itself, not as a replacement. Back in the 1930s some people feared that radio broadcasts would keep patrons from buying tickets to live opera. As things turned out, the Saturday afternoon broadcasts built audiences for the Met and expanded its reputation.
The audiences that I see on Saturday afternoons at the Cineplex are older than those in the house in New York. This would suggest that the HD transmissions enable less-mobile seniors to attend. Some of them are bused in, perhaps from retirement communities. Specially organized trips could lure some of them to Manhattan too, I’ll bet.
For another view by Beeri Moalem, click here.
Respond to this Article