October 24, 2009
The Apotheosis of Opera
Whatever uncertainties or fears we may have about it, we have emphatically entered the age of information technology. For good or evil, most of our traditional institutions, such as healthcare, education, books, and journalism, are undergoing drastic and irreversible changes that could not have been imagined a century ago.
One of the few innovations that we can wholeheartedly embrace, without misgivings or nostalgia, is the Metropolitan Opera's HD theater broadcasts. I don't know why the Met insists on hiding its light under a bushel -- its advertising is infrequent and low key, its explanatory website is obscure, and the site for locating a theater is user unfriendly -- but if you happen to attend one of the 650 theaters in 14 countries where the HD performances are being shown, you'll find the effect electrifying. It's like a marriage of opera and IMAX.
An art form may have to wait centuries for the crucial development that enables it to fulfill its potential for magic. Sometimes it is a matter of format, as when Aeschylus put a second actor on the Greek stage, thereby creating dialogue and the capability for action and emotion in drama. In other cases, a new technology works the magic, as when van Eyck and his colleagues learned to use multiple layers of linseed-oil paints to make pictures glow from within. The clavier and harpsichord were around for quite a while before Bartolomeo Cristofori began playing with levers, hammers, and soundboards in his "pianoforte" and suddenly, a percussive instrument learned to sing. It is almost as if God had put Cristofori on earth to pave the way for Frederick Chopin.
Opera waited four hundred years for its apotheosis. Despite its marvelous ability to intensify the emotions of a drama, it has largely remained an esoteric pleasure, confined to those who were willing to cope with its drawbacks. Whether the language be English or foreign, the sung words are often difficult to understand, so that audiences are forced to either guess what is going on or listen with one eye glued to a libretto. The need for an orchestra, singers, and stage sets makes opera productions uniquely expensive, so that an unwealthy devotee is forced to choose between listening to a CD or radio, enduring the limitations of an occasional local production, or traveling to a major city to purchase a fairly expensive top gallery seat a hundred yards from the stage, where he must listen with a libretto in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other.
Opera movies have so far been only a partial improvement. Because of the expense of cinematograph production and the limited potential audience, they have mostly been either ad-hoc filmings of live productions, with static settings, or amateurishly filmed low-budget affairs that have little of the excitement of a live performance. Moreover, such movies have usually been relegated to art theaters with small screens, fuzzy focus, and woefully inadequate sound systems.
Then, three years ago, when the Metropolitan presented its first HD live broadcast, opera finally found its 'Cristofori' and all the problems and limitations were swept away. On a Saturday morning (or a Wednesday afternoon encore), you can walk into the biggest theater of your (hopefully) nearby cinema complex, choose your seat, and wait for the giant screen and Surround Sound System to transport you onto the stage of the Met. The actors seem near enough to touch, the subtitles tell you exactly what they are saying or singing, and the music, of virtually live performance quality, is all around you. The genie has finally been released from its bottle.
Last year's Peter Grimes was a perfect showpiece for this new medium. Like Wozzeck, it centers on a commonplace, not very likable, man who, through his own failings and the contempt and abuse of those around him, sinks into madness and death. The libretto, by the undeservedly forgotten Montagu Slater, would by itself be a fine stage drama, but Benjamin Britten's music gives it an almost unendurable intensity. Nonetheless, the action on a live stage can seem rather static. HD gives it life and immediacy. At the end, when Peter's one remaining friend tells him,
Come, I'll help you with the boat...Sail out, till you lose sight of land, then sink the boat. D'you hear? Sink her. Good-bye Peter.
He woodenly obeys. As you see his massive back disappear into the blackness and the music underscores his despair, I defy you not to weep.
HD broadcasts will not obsolete live opera. Instead, they will be a valuable instrument for teaching the public to appreciate opera, the magic enabler that can bring its full sensual and emotional power to a mass audience---to those who have never seen a opera and particularly to children. HD will create a whole new audience, some of whom will savor the intimacy of a live performance. Thus, HD will create a vastly wider market for local opera performances.
As the Los Angeles Times put it, "the Met's experiment of merging film with live performance has created a new art form." Now that opera has finally found its true medium, it will probably go in new directions that we can only guess at. Perhaps some child who now sits wide-eyed through an HD performance will grow up to become the 'Chopin' who will finally give opera its full voice.
For now, you are just in time for the Met's current nine-opera HD season. On October 24, you can see Aida, whose blend of music, romance, and pageantry is a perfect introduction for newcomers. If you miss it, you'll have no one but yourself to blame.