After reading a NY Times article on the subject of MET OPERA HD Simulcasts in movie theaters, in which the critic concludes that HD might be a mixed blessing, I engaged one of my students in a conversation regarding the article. It was a hot button topic for him and he asserted that he gets turned off whenever anyone suggests that HD would herald the end of opera as we know it. He argued that the same was said of the MET radio broadcasts of an earlier era, and to the contrary, they helped popularize opera.
I am personally on the side of the article. The point is made logically and in a balanced way. The writer did not predict an operatic doomsday but rather that our experience of opera would transform because of HD. And it makes sense for the following reasons:
If we look at the Metropolitan Opera, it is run by a non-musician, who has done a super job of bringing the MET technologically up-to-date. With MET Player and the HD Series, Mr. Gelb has created a model that the premiere opera companies in the world are copying. The MET makes many times more money on an HD Broadcast in movie theaters than it does in the house. By financial necessity, HD Opera will become the norm. Opera in the house? A curiosity for the neofite and a temple for the bona fide opera aficionado. The large crowd of opera-lite fans, brought about by the success of of The Three Tenors are excited by spectacle and a few recognizable tunes.
In a sense, this is correct. Opera in its true form (i.e., whereby a singer is measured by his/her ability to win the acoustic battle over the orchestra, all the while touching an audience in ways they did not imagine possible with the sheer sound of the voice) can only be appreciated by those who invest the time to understand what it is at its core and thereby be able to appreciate it for what it is, as opposed to what one makes of it.
With HD, comes a visual scrutiny that is not possible even at front row orchestra in the theater. This kind of scrutiny evoques Hollywood, particularly in the context of a movie theater. The production values are going to become more important and lookism will become more pronounced in the short term.
In the long term it may become a litmus test for live theater. With 3D film, the proscenium stage is becoming confining and limiting for a modern audience. For live theater to become interesting, Shakespeare’s Theater in the round may offer great possibilities with modern technology, particularly with the multi-faceted nature of opera.
In the short term, we may have to get used to the idea that opera-lite has won over for a while since the onset of The Three Tenors pop-opera spectacular. HD Simulcasts work for the pocket and modern eye of the modern opera-curious audience. At least, HD will get a broader audience to be educated about opera.
To my student, I will say this: it is true that Radio Broadcasts did not undo live opera. How could it? Radio Broadcasts lacked the visual element that makes an operatic experience. HD however gives that experience and even streamlines it! The camera can concentrate on the interesting parts of the stage and narrate the opera rather than let the audience do the spontaneous editing. HD is indeed an alternative that outdoes live opera at the moment. The microphone can easily turn a voice that is substandard in the house into magnificence at the movie theater.
I am of the Star Trek generation and enjoy my Iphone/Communicator/Tricorder even more than my children do. I am a modernist and would like to see even more HD opera available from the great theaters of the world. If I cannot be a a Scala opening, I would like to have the option of seeing the spectacle on my Ipad. That said, no amount of modernism is going to replace the thrill of seeing Otello live at the Met in 1982 when great voices dwarfed the orchestra even under the slightly heavier hand of a younger, more passion-driven James Levine.
The experience of live opera when there are true operatic voices is something so spectacular that anyone would become a convert. The problem is that life-changing operatic experiences cannot exist without voices and the current tenor of the business is such that an “impression” of opera suffices. So pretty voices with little carrying power is the norm and they work very well in HD presentations. The dearth of developed dramatic voices is simply the fault of an industry bent on making money first and art last.
The mystique of opera will not go away and so the magic of operatic voices will not disappear, but it will take some time before the dust settles and bona fide opera is brought to compatibility with 21st century technology and the fast-food/immediate gratification culture!
In short, in the name of real opera, not opera-lite, I will pay top dollar to see an artist on HD if that same artist can deliver vocal power and charm in the theater. Or perhaps, the two are not as compatible as we would like to believe. Perhaps opera-lite voices work better in HD Simulcasts than their full-voiced counterparts. In such a case, the divide will become larger and larger! But if it is so, then let us make the distinction clear! Mario Lanza for the movie screen. Mario del Monaco for the theater. Il Divo for the screen, Antonenko for the stage. At this point, we have a lot of singers who would fare better with the electronically enhanced movie camera. They do not do so well in a live experience. If the distinction was better made between what works in the theater and what works on screen, we may be able to locate the true operatic stars of the future. The competition that would exist between the two media might indeed give rise to an operatic model for future generations.
One thing that I think is critical is that opera in movie theatres not become a slick genre like films are. A movie is not the same as a broadcast of a play, and the broadcast of a play seems not to have ever gained popularity. A live broadcast of an opera, even if rebroadcast in an unedited form, carries much of the magic of a live performance. This is not true of a movie of an opera.
I am now puzzling over why the broadcast of live stage plays has never become fashionable.