Posted in Opera

Paying Your Money….and Taking Your Choice

Well….I had planned to expound at length on the glories of Erich Korngold, Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner as promised last week, but Zachary Woolfe’s article in the Sunday New York Times about the Metropolitan Opera’s HD telecasts is just too tempting to let pass. Normally I can’t abide Mr. Woolfe or his usually half-cocked reviews, but I must say this particular discussion is spot on.

As you can tell from this blog, I have the good fortune to live in the New York metropolitan area, which means I have ready access to the Met, Carnegie Hall and numerous other venues where I can experience live opera and classical music performances. I’ve been a Metropolitan Opera subscriber for 25 years, and was a New York City Opera subscriber for a number of years prior to that. To date I’ve seen the Met’s simultaneous HD telecasts of “Le Comte Ory” and “The Enchanted Island” and many more when shown later on PBS. So being a veteran and all, the only thing I can say in response to “Are the HD telecasts good or bad for opera?” is:

What’s the big deal?

Caruso recording for RCA, 1902

Metropolitan Opera performances have been broadcast on PBS since the late 1970’s. Yes, there’s a big difference in the quality of sound between hearing an opera live and seeing it on a television or movie screen, but this goes with the territory. People who carp about it are Luddites, in my opinion, who probably would have strangled the recording industry in its cradle. But the opera singers who first stepped into the recording booth not long after the turn of the last century saw this as a wonderful way to bring their art to the widest possible audience in addition to preserving their legacy, in much the same fashion as many of today’s singers view the telecasts. Nevertheless, recorded sound can lie, and I’m not talking about the limits of the acoustical horn. The voices of some singers are simply not flattered by the studio product, Beverly Sills being a prime example (her voice was always more full and varied in color in the house). And the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts, which began in the early 1930’s, don’t always tell the truth either—you get no sense of the size of a voice since the mikes are placed at the lip of the stage and immediately overhead. So the critics are not raising a new issue.

In terms of drama, however, the HD telecasts are just the thing for opera lovers whose priorities include good theater as opposed to just “park and bark” opera. They feature the type of immediacy that few live performances can muster unless you have the money for an orchestra seat (but then what you hear would be subpar, because opera always sounds better in the Family Circle). “Le Comte Ory” in HD was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and not just because of the intricate staging of the final ménage à trois—the singers’ facial expressions were a wonderful accompaniment to the in-bed gymnastics, thus demonstrating that binoculars are not always a substitute for close-ups. Similarly, the camera was able to catch sight of a single tear on the cheek of Anna Netrebko as the dying Antonia in “Les Contes d’Hoffman,” thus making her character’s fate even more poignant. But there are drawbacks. The HD audience has to work a bit harder to suspend its disbelief when viewing the opening scene of “Der Rosenkavalier,” because, let’s face it, Susan Graham, no matter how resourceful, can’t really resemble the 17-year-old boy that Octavian is supposed to be. And the camera literally pierces the veil during the Met’s wonderful production of “Madama Butterfly” because we can see the faces of the bunraku puppeteers who bring Cio-Sio-San’s little son to life.

In the final analysis I do think the HD telecasts are the “next best thing” to seeing live opera. While there’s no real substitute for acoustic sound (and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Wagner—live—create the world in the key of E-flat major at the start of “Das Rheingold”) the dramatic rewards of HD opera are plentiful. And let’s be honest—it’s the rare person who’s got the time and the money to see everything on their operatic wish list live on any given occasion, or in many cases even to travel to an opera house at all. Not everything on my Hit Parade made it onto my Met subscription series for next season, so I’m glad I’ll still get to see “Les Troyens” and “The Tempest” at a movie theater near me.

One feature of the HD telecasts, though, is extremely important—every showing includes a public service announcement urging the audience to seek out a nearby opera company and experience a live performance. No better advice can be given, but with bankruptcies of numerous regional companies and orchestras, the availability of the HD telecasts is not a luxury—it’s a necessity if the art form is to survive. And for those of us who love it, we’ll take it however we can get it.

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