Loving the Opera in HD

From Our March/April Issue

Loving the Opera in HD

Once controversial, Metropolitan Opera broadcasts for movie-theater audiences have become a gateway for new (and returning) fans.

On a Saturday afternoon last December, I picked up my ticket for the Metropolitan Opera’s Falstaff and hurried down the backstage corridors to a trailer behind Lincoln Center. The crew of Live in HD, the Met’s popular series of broadcasts to movie theaters, was crowded into the truck before an array of monitors. On the main monitor, the soprano Renée Fleming, in a bronzy, shimmering dress, stood in the wings rehearsing her intro.

“On this snowy day in New York,” Fleming began and recited information: Falstaff, which premiered in 1893, was the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s last, sublime work, a comedy based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. This was the Met’s first new production of the opera in five decades, and James Levine, the Met’s music director, was back in the orchestra pit after an absence of more than two years.

When Fleming finished, you could hear broadcast director Gary Halvorson asking for a lighting adjustment; he brought the camera forward. Fleming sang a little run and smiled. “I feel a top note coming on,” she said.

A few moments later, Halvorson bounded up metal stairs into the truck. The crew took their seats in front of the control panels. Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, had told me earlier that Halvorson—a Juilliard-trained pianist who in addition to directing music, dance, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for television directed 55 episodes of Friends—possesses “the instincts of a jet-fighter pilot.” That makes Gelb, who sits just behind him, the co-pilot. These broadcasts have defined Gelb’s tenure at the Met; he introduced them within months of taking over in 2006.

It was time for me to take my seat in the theater. Meanwhile, at movie houses in 12 time zones, audiences had staked out seats, too, and munched on breakfast or dinner while waiting for the show to go live with shots of the red and gold theater and sounds of the orchestra warming up.

The Met broadcasts have brought opera to larger audiences, and they have made the company a superpower of opera, or an 800-pound gorilla—savior or scourge, depending on your point of view. Many musicians and opera lovers won’t think of going. They reject a mediated experience—a camera dictating what they will see, music piped in through a sound system. For several years, I would not go, either.

I love opera. It’s the family sport. My father, Hugo Weisgall, composed them; opera filled his life. We entered through the stage doors, at the City Center on 56th Street and at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, where the New York City Opera performed my father’s work. I attended my first performance—Verdi’s La Traviata, in Prague—in utero. There was no adventurous opera company in Baltimore, where we lived when I was small, so my father started one, with simple sets and young singers, nothing like the grand opera in Vienna he’d seen as a boy.

I sat blissfully under the piano while singers rehearsed in our living room. Music vibrated through my bones, and my ears hurt; I was terrified and enchanted by those same singers unrecognizable on stage in makeup and costume. I went to operas by Mozart, Britten, Menotti, Gilbert and Sullivan, Verdi, even Wagner that Anti-Semitic-Son-of-a-Bitch, which is what my father called the über-romantic composer whose music drowned you with tsunamis of sound and who, along with his more humane rival Verdi, defined opera in the 19th century, when it was the Western world’s most popular art form.

Every city had its opera house; tenors were heartthrobs. Operas marked important occasions—Aida was commissioned for the new Cairo opera house, which was built in anticipation of the Suez Canal. Verdi closed rehearsals of Rigoletto so that people wouldn’t start whistling “La donna è mobile” on the streets before the premiere.

But by the time the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center opened in 1966, people whistled tunes from musical comedies, and girls fainted over the Beatles. The company’s narrow repertory included few works written after World War I. Its size—it holds close to 4,000, nearly twice as many as Paris or Vienna—discouraged experiments, while smaller companies, including the City Opera across the plaza, worked the edges and programmed Baroque and contemporary operas. The Met was made for show: opulent productions that could bridge the daunting distance between seats and stage. There in that theater with its heavy curves and fixtures like headlights blazing from the balconies, I rarely found the emotional urgency I had loved since I was a child.

A few years ago, I attended a Met production of Verdi’s Macbeth. Despite superb singing, the production felt disjointed, as if it could not contain both a medieval thane with tragic ambition and a 19th-century composer sounding an impassioned call for a united Italy. Lady Macbeth went mad and danced on chairs, but I was more aware of her bravura than her metastasizing guilt.

It happened that my brother took my mother to the Met that afternoon, too, at a movie theater in Northern Virginia. They paid $24 apiece for their tickets; my seats had cost a couple of hundred dollars each. Afterward, I called my brother. “It was one of the greatest operas I’ve ever seen!” he exclaimed. “Did you see Macduff, when he read the letter telling him that his family has been murdered? He had tears in his eyes!” Well, no. I couldn’t see any tears. I was in the first ring, far from the stage. My brother was talking as if he had been to a different opera.

At Das Rheingold, the first opera of a recent production of Wagner’s four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, I felt a similar frustrating distance. My father’s daughter, I loved the music but had resisted its length, implied anti-Semitism, and bizarre libretto. But this Ring was a big deal, conceived by Robert Lepage of Cirque du Soleil. Its set was a $16 million machine, a temperamental array of steel seesaws.

Rheingold is all backstory: gold, gods, giants. The machine shimmered with projected waves as the Rhinemaidens dived and paddled nervously; it cranked open into the workshop of the evil dwarf Alberich. Then, as Wotan and Fricka got ready to move into Valhalla, the machine creaked and froze. In the audience, we did not guess that it had failed, though it seemed odd that instead of climbing a rainbow to the music’s unfolding triads, the gods trundled offstage. I was unmoved.

So I went to Die Walküre, the cycle’s second opera, at the movies. Live in HD required a fraction of the financial commitment. If I hated it, I could get up and leave. On screen, the set worked. The machine became a supernaturally green forest. It morphed into horses, and the Valkyries laughed and whooped to galloping horns and slid down their seesaws to dismount. Siegmund and Sieglinde, Wotan’s twins who had been separated at birth, met, sang, and made love: I rooted for incest. Six hours later, I had succumbed to the story, engulfed by the music, as if I’d been onstage myself. Close-ups registered the singers’ shifting expressions and tracked their concentration, the animal, muscular effort of producing sound.

I have missed few operas at the movies since. The multiplex, its popcorn and video games, has become part of their populist charm. I didn’t care that gunfire from Zero Dark Thirty next door punctuated Aida’s tender aria of longing for her homeland—or that the camera could only glimpse dancers and horses, the triumphal troops of the stage spectacle. For the most part, though, the broadcasts cut out distractions. They reset the balance between production and performance; at the movies I saw a different, intimate Met. Live in HD erases the distance between audience and stage. Because it tracks a performance in real time, there’s an element of improvisation. Immersed in the moment, I suspend my critical instincts. Watching opera like this is like sitting under the piano.

 

The week before a transmission, Halvorson works with his assistant director and a score reader to develop a list of shots. “I map out everything,” he says. “Then on Tuesday or Wednesday we tape a performance. The next morning we have a conference, and if the stage director is in town, he’ll come. After that, the cameramen and I spend the next three days in a room going through the whole opera. We change all the shots, and it will look nothing like it did at first. By then I really know the opera. Often I can script it tightly, but some directors are very loose.” His own style has evolved since he began working on these operas, he says. “I’ve learned that I can trust the wider shots.”

Halvorson laughed when I compared Aida’s arias and “Ride of the Valkyries” to Beyoncé at Super Bowl halftime. “I got my start in television shooting rock and roll,” he said. “For arias, I don’t have any shots, I have a zone. I follow the performance—I get out of my storytelling shoes and into my rock-and-roll shoes. Once the camera goes in on a woman, I think: ‘Is the light right? How does she look? She moved differently this time; I have to shoot from the other side.’”

Classical music these days could use an infusion of rock and roll. Opera companies are struggling—the New York City Opera declared bankruptcy last fall, thanks to the board’s financial mismanagement, even though its revivals of 20th-century operas and new works were playing to enthusiastic houses and reviews. Audiences today do want the excitement of new work, and there is a generation of young composers who are writing it. Even at the Met last fall, the new opera Two Boys by Nico Muhly had a promising premiere, and in 2012, Thomas Adès’s The Tempest was shown in HD. The productions combine spectacle (Lepage staged The Tempest) with music that has grown less strange, whose language and textures—repetitions and shimmers of sound—are intriguing, not daunting.

When Gelb came to the Met, the audience was old and was aging at the rate of one year per year; he credits the broadcasts with reversing that trend. While he did not invent the idea of transmitting live performances to movie theaters, he was among the first to understand its marketing potential. The Met’s Saturday afternoon live radio broadcasts have aired since 1931, and it broadcast its first live television performance in 1948. Live in HD amped up the sports-influenced formula—close-ups of the action, locker-room interviews—with more cameras, hosts who are famous singers, backstage views of crews turning the set from a temple into the banks of the Nile.

The first opera broadcast in 2006 went to 98 theaters in four countries; by the end of the first season, 480 theaters in eight countries were onboard. This season’s series is being shown in 1,950 movie theaters. The Met projects that close to three million people will attend.

Event broadcasting is hot: The National Theatre of London began its series in 2009, broadcasting several plays a season to movie houses in 26 countries. Last December a live broadcast of The Sound of Music won huge ratings for NBC. In January, a production of Chekhov’s Platonov, or The Disinherited, mounted in New York’s The Kitchen, was simultaneously shown in three movie theaters. With Met Opera on Demand, for $4.99 per HD movie, or $149.99 for a year’s subscription, you can have unlimited access to 450 Live in HD and TV broadcasts at home. (You can watch that amazing Valkyrie ride for free on YouTube—150,000 views and counting.)

Despite—or perhaps because of—their success, the operas have their detractors. The Australian Barrie Kosky, artistic director of the Komische Oper in Berlin, who staged a raucous Magic Flute in Los Angeles, dismissed the Met’s broadcasts as “spectacle, schmecktacle” and “repulsive and fake” in an interview in December’s Opera magazine. Alex Ross, reviewing Götterdämmerung unfavorably in The New Yorker two years ago, wrote: “I wonder whether it is almost unfair to review new Met stagings from the point of view of one sitting in the house, since they now seem designed more for the camera operators.” In May 2012, after traveling the country watching HD performances, Zachary Woolfe wrote in The New York Times: “What the audience in a movie theater experiences is not just the opposite of opera. It is the undoing of opera, an art form in which a present, active audience is fundamental.”

 

HD is disruptive, and it’s here to stay. In my experience, it’s not supplanting live opera. That’s why I was at Lincoln Center last December. I wanted to see Falstaff onstage before watching it in HD. The movies have turned me into a diehard Met fan; I recognize the faces of members of the chorus and orchestra. Stephanie Blythe, Mistress Quickly, had sung Fricka in Rheingold; baritone Ambrogio Maestri had stolen the show as the quack physician in L’Elisir d’Amore. He is the reigning interpreter of Falstaff.

The audience cheered James Levine, conducting in his wheelchair. Acknowledging the cheers, Levine, who with single-minded concentration for the past 40 years made the company, its orchestra and singers, into one of the best in the world, pressed his hands against his heart. Falstaff is a musical party, with ten leads who mostly sing in ensembles—quartets, quintets—with crossing conversations and motifs that flicker like fireflies. It is Verdi’s musical summation, dense with ideas and melody, sight gags and puns, and midnight magic.

Falstaff is a magnificent buffoon, short of cash and long on self-deception. Though old and fat, he decides to seduce two of the good, and wealthy, wives of Windsor. He needs their money—and craves their love. The ladies teach him, and other foolish men, a lesson. Robert Carsen, the production’s stage director, moved the action to the 20th century; one scene takes place in a silly dandelion-yellow 1950s Formica kitchen. Falstaff is dumped out the window and salvages his ego in conversation with a horse that, like everyone at some point in this production, is seen happily eating. For a moment, the ghost of a wayward robotic camera hovered like a space station on the set wall.

Then in the last scene, the wall opened out into a starry sky that canceled all sense of earthly time. It filled the house with its beauty. Falstaff and the chorus of townspeople wore antlers; low lights transformed their headdresses into a forest of shadow branches. Frightened, tricked, and almost chastened, Falstaff vocally defended his great belly, and everyone went to a party.

Falstaff moved to the front of the stage and sang the subject of a fugue, an archaic, rigorous form more often used to end a piece of sacred music, not an opera. The text: “Life is a joke, and everybody is fooled.” The contrapuntal lines wove together, separated, thinned to two or three voices, then swelled with consummate exuberance. The house lights went up, the singers pointed to the audience, including us in the joke. We were all fools, all part of the comedy—and of Verdi’s amen.

“Most operas are unhappy,” Halvorson had said to me before the performance. “This is a comedy. I’ve shot so many—I’m going to kill it.” I wanted to see how he did it.

In the second act, set in a restaurant, the camera cut back and forth between two tables of singers, matching the music’s shifting energy; it held still as Nannetta and Fenton, young lovers, forbidden (of course) to marry, serenaded each other. Falstaff’s sidekick stole a pocketbook, a bit of business I’d missed. At halftime, Maestri, who’d cooked a risotto, invited Fleming to taste it; she had a hard time putting the plate down. Halvorson made the kitchen slapstick feel like I Love Lucy. In the last scene, he slowed again to a gentle dance as Nannetta, pretending to be queen of the fairies, sang her ethereal aria to shadows and spirits and floated like a luna moth above the horny forest.

During the fugue, the camera moved from voice to voice, from singer to singer, following the shape of the music, revealing its intricate, triumphant joy. A happy fool, I watched to the last curtain call.

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