I’m Ready for My Close-Up, Mr. Puccini

An audience at Union Square Stadium 14 in New York watching a preview
before a screening of Puccini’s
“Madama Butterfly” last year.

credit : Ron Berard/Metropolitan Opera

WHEN you walk to your seat in a movie theater for one of the “Live in HD” broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, your experience begins with the sound: the instantly recognizable, immediately comforting hum of instruments tuning and the audience stirring, piped in live from the Met itself.

I heard it when I stepped into the Murdock Theater in Wichita, Kan., last November to attend the screening of Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha,” part of a season in which I traveled throughout the country, attending the Met’s 11 HD broadcasts. It was the same reassuring bustle, whether I was about to see Verdi’s “Traviata” in a theater over a casino in Las Vegas or Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in the middle of a snowstorm in Boston.

Then the lights go down and the opera begins, the surround-sound quality in the theaters loud and clear. As the Met proudly says on its Web site, “It is the next best audio experience to being in the opera house itself.”

The question is whether “the next best” is good enough when it comes to the complete opera experience.

It is a question with real urgency as the broadcasts become the way more and more people experience opera. The Met is leading a revolution, albeit one that has less to do with what it’s putting onstage than with how it’s sending it into the world.

None of which is to diminish the significance of the HD series. Fundamentally changing the way the performing arts can be delivered to audiences, the broadcasts are the most important thing to happen in opera since the advent of translated supertitles in the early 1980s. The “Live in HD” series, which began six years ago, now reaches 1,700 theaters in 54 countries. And audiences are turning out.

If all 17 performances of this season’s new production of “Don Giovanni” had sold out the 4,000-seat Met, it would have accounted for a total audience of 68,000. The broadcast of the opera in October, by contrast, reached 216,000 worldwide in one fell swoop, and the Met expected 50,000 more to see it in delayed showings in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and in “encore” broadcasts in North America and Europe. (Next month the company will similarly repeat its broadcasts of the four operas in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.)

The number of broadcasts now encompasses about a third of the Met’s Saturday matinee performances; the number is limited by the series’s cost and logistical challenges, as well as by the company’s reluctance to repeat operas year to year.

While the audience numbers can’t match the millions that tune in for the Met’s radio or television broadcasts, the HD performances, with tickets costing about $20, have begun turning a profit for the company. And they have the added intangible benefit of associating the Met with something more innovative than the stale media of public television and classical radio.

The program speaks to the vision of Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, as a promoter. The rest of the arts world was unprepared for the program’s success. Other opera companies have only haltingly begun to explore a similar approach, with theater companies (like the National Theater in London), dance troupes (the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow) and symphony orchestras (the Los Angeles Philharmonic) following suit.

But what actually happens when the lights go down? How does the movie theater experience compare with the live — really live, not live in HD — production in the house?

While the sound quality in the theaters is exceptional, what the microphones don’t, and can’t, capture are the differences in size of voices. In December, when I saw the broadcast of Handel’s “Rodelinda” on a balmy day in New Orleans, the countertenor Andreas Scholl seemed to have as big a voice as the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, a jarring experience, since Mr. Scholl was nearly inaudible in the house a month earlier.

Even as the vocal performances are homogenized, the visuals are often thrown into higher relief. In getting so close to the performers the broadcasts can create remarkably strong moments.

The woman sitting next to me in Las Vegas delivered an unprintable exclamation during the broadcast of “La Traviata” when Germont (Dmitri Hvorostovsky) slapped his son, Alfredo (Matthew Polenzani). The slap had sent a low murmur through the Met when I saw it live, but it was harrowing in high definition.

That exaggeration of detail is where the subtle shift in the opera experience happens. I watched the first broadcast of the season, Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, surrounded by Russian fans of the opera’s star, Anna Netrebko. When Ms. Netrebko, as Boleyn, was listening to Percy’s recollections of their love, her emotions registered in facial details that had been invisible when I saw the opera in the house. In Boleyn’s scene with Jane Seymour, Ms. Netrebko stared at Ekaterina Gubanova, her eyes glistening with a potent mixture of hatred and pity. Her performance, strong in the house, was powerful in a different way on screen. Live opera acting depends more on posture and physical fearlessness than on the kinds of details — a quiver of the mouth, a quick turn of the eyes — that convey emotion in cinematic close-up.

Just as the introduction of sound fundamentally changed the nature of cinema, so has HD changed the range required of singing actors. To be successful their performances must now work on several levels at once, some of which might be accessible live and some on screen.

Discussing Michael Grandage, his director in “Don Giovanni,” the baritone Mariusz Kwiecien said in an interview last fall: “He came from the dramatic theater. He wants to see the real things in our eyes, in our gestures, smiles. So obviously people in the last rows in the balconies probably will not see those small details. That’s why we have to keep some operatic, bigger gestures, but still, it should bridge outside and inside.”

Some singers can effectively bridge the formats; others — like Renée Fleming, who sang the title character in “Rodelinda” — may cut an elegant, affecting figure onstage but are less convincing when their eyes need to carry the drama. For still others the new medium is a godsend. When I saw Natalie Dessay at the Met in “Lucia di Lammermoor” in February 2011, her radically introverted conception of the role seemed simply dull and detached; later in HD it was haunting.

In certain of the Met’s new productions this season — “Don Giovanni,” Gounod’s “Faust,” Wagner’s “Ring” operas — the action often seems limited in front of looming empty backgrounds waiting to be found by the cameras. The party scene in “Don Giovanni” was diffuse at the Met; in the movie theater at least it was clear what to look at. Your attention felt, finally, directed.

“I wonder whether it is almost unfair to review new Met stagings from the point of view of one sitting in the house,” the critic Alex Ross wrote in the March 12 edition of The New Yorker, “since they now seem designed more for the camera operators.”

The Met has steadfastly denied that artistic decisions are made with any eye at all toward the broadcasts. In an interview last month with The Financial Times, Mr. Gelb dismissed as a “conspiracy theory” the idea that new Met productions are created with the cameras in mind. Stage directors, he said, are “too busy for that.”

“The most unjustified criticism (coming primarily from music critics such as yourself),” Mr. Gelb wrote to me recently, “is that the singers, directors and designers are creating stage productions at the Met that are planned with HD in mind.” (Mr. Gelb declined requests to be interviewed for this article but agreed to respond to questions by e-mail.)

Yet whether by plan or not, HD is being internalized by Met performers.

“It comes up a lot from these singers,” Mr. Grandage said when I asked him whether the subject of the HD broadcast was ever broached in the rehearsal room. “Just gets mentioned a lot. In the context of ‘Do you think that’s too big for HD?’ That kind of thing.”

These questions are not a bad thing, he added, saying, “I think we are all making tiny adjustments in our heads having to do with HD.”

Mr. Gelb responded: “That Michael Grandage said this to you is merely a reflection of how aware directors and singers have become of the power and presence of our HD productions. But the fact remains that I never instruct or ask directors to create for HD.”

Yet the real issue is not top-down instruction. It is the small, bottom-up decisions that artists clearly make every day, the minor adjustments to performances that read better on HD. These are choices that are not intended to stint the live audience but end up resulting in, say, a Lucia whose subtleties may be perceptible only to viewers in the movie theater. Is that good or bad?

It is not necessarily either. Live and HD opera are two similar but distinct experiences, which benefit from similar but distinct acting styles. It is ridiculous to pretend that the distinction does not exist.

That said, the difference is least obvious when the original production is strongest. Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch’s brilliant take on “Satyagraha” seemed entirely natural on HD, though it drew only a dozen or so people to the 700-seat Murdock Theater in Wichita. The audience was a mix of curious students, older adults and a few of the remaining elderly members of the ladies’ club that once owned the theater and still meets faithfully in the adjoining Queen Anne-style mansion.

The size of the audience was not, in and of itself, telling, since “Satyagraha” is an unusual opera. I attended a number of packed broadcasts, like that “Don Giovanni” in snowy Boston, where other theaters had to be opened to accommodate the overflow crowds.

Those sold-out shows have a special electricity, just as they do at the Met itself; the first one, that “Anna Bolena” in Brooklyn, in particular felt like an event.

In Wichita the ladies’ club members nibbled on sandwiches and happily chatted before the show, one of the hundreds of small cultures that have developed around the broadcasts. Whether in Seattle or in Chicago, there is camaraderie among the regulars, who catch up during intermissions and linger after the shows.

In their preperformance joviality the Wichita women matched the images that appeared on screen before the curtain rose in New York. Those images, dim and a little ghostly with the lights still on in the movie theaters, showed the orchestra level of the Met. They seemed to focus on adorable young couples and laughing children — many of them apparently Asian. It was a reasonable, if limited, sampling of the typical audience in New York, but a marked contrast to the HD audiences, which in my experience are much older and much whiter.

The lights dimmed in the movie theater as they rose on screen at the Met, where the bass-baritone Eric Owens greeted the HD audience with a smile.

Any criticism I had of the opera that followed was different from that spurred by “Don Giovanni” or “Faust,” where the HD simply amplified already weak productions. If anything, at the “Satyagraha” broadcast I was left longing to see more, not less: the ceaseless activity in the corners of the stage beyond the camera’s narrow window.

The HD broadcasts change the opera experience in other, more human ways. Few moments this season were as touching as Mr. Glass’s curtain call: “Satyagraha,” after all, is his operatic masterpiece, and this international simulcast came a couple of months before his 75th birthday. The audience at the Met was on its feet, cheering. The audience at the Murdock didn’t quite know what to do. The ladies’ club members smiled and clapped timidly.

At an HD broadcast are you at the movies or at a performance? The most disconcerting part of the HD experience comes when it is time to applaud.

Or not.

Zachary Woolfe (The New York Times) / 27 April, 2012

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