Saturday, January 16, 2010

Opera on the big screen

Though the idea of going to the opera at 9:00 in the morning (for a 10:00 curtain) seems a little odd, today I saw Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna in Carmen, and it was one of those moments where you suddenly realize that the abstract thing you referred to at 6 or 7 as "the future" has already arrived.

I've been encountering the Met radio broadcasts for years, but rarely been captivated by them: I don't have the same ear for opera that I have for early music, or other symphonic/orchestral pieces; so when I hear opera without being able to see it, I usually feel like I'm missing the point. To be clear, this is my own personal flaw, and not opera's.

Anyway, I'd assumed that the Met simulcasts would be a fixed camera, or a couple of fixed cameras, and that perspective would rotate between them throughout, and that simply didn't win me over. It wasn't until I saw a trailer for the Met HD season, which featured swooping cameras, that I wondered if I'd been wrong. And then when I saw this review of the new production of Carmen, I couldn't resist going, though I still wasn't sure what the camera work would be like. I had imagined that it would be difficult to do anything particularly intimate during a live broadcast.

Of course, I was completely wrong. The perspective allowed by the cameras made me feel as though I was a fly, wandering around the stage, glancing into the orchestra pit, watching from above while the sets were changed. It helped, I imagine, that I was seated in the fourth or fifth row of seats. Even arriving half an hour early, I still found the theatre nearly full, with people waiting to get in on standby. Fortunately, I am not tall. And the theatre seats are extraordinarily cushy. So it was perfectly comfortable to sink down into a reclining position, almost as though I were on a lounge chair at the beach.

The opera itself was as spectacular as the review promised, though I gather that a lot of the praise is directed at the raw sensuality of the production, as opposed to a more stylized and traditional rendition. And since this is my first Carmen, it's hard for me to comment on it in comparison. I loved the set for the first act, which made use of the three concentric turntables on the stage. Between the largest, and the medium turntable, there was a curving chainlink fence, through which I could see brick walls. And as the scene began, I realized that the outermost circle was the inside of the military station; and the city was what I could see, bustling through the chain link fence in the center of the stage. When the action moved towards the town center, the outer turntable simply rotated away, and the scene changed instantly.

At Seattle Opera, season ticket holders have the option for a free upgrade for one show per season, to any available seats in the house. I took advantage of that a couple of years ago to see Jane Eaglen in The Flying Dutchman, and utterly loved it. When an opera is well-choreographed, and well-acted, you can see the acting, even if you're seated at the top of the house, but I like watching facial expressions, and little bits of business, so I loved being able to watch the kids in the opera chorus clambering about for the changing of the guard. I've never really been able to imagine what it would like to be able to be onstage in an opera chorus, but the HD cameras made me feel as though I could. And I liked the fact that I could recognize members of the chorus, and then spot them again later on in the fourth act.

The singing and acting were equally lovely, from all the players involved. The addition of two short ballets, preceding the first and third acts, was lovely, though I don't know if it was really necessary. When I saw Seattle Opera's Pagliacci last year, two ballets had been added to that production as well. I quite love ballet, and in both instances I thought the choreography was beautiful and well-executed. My only doubt is that it's beginning to feel as though the producers are becoming almost gluttonous about adding to the productions -- it's always more, more! -- as though opera wants to establish itself as the medium which encompasses all other sensual mediums. How long will it be until there's a production of L'Italiana in Algeri that includes a Pappataci feast for the audience, so that in addition to dance, music, and acting, there's the gratification of food, as well? Mind you, if such a thing ever comes to be, I think I'd be first in line for tickets.

Though it felt a little strange to attend the opera first thing in the morning, I almost preferred it to attending at night. I found, in the last season of tickets that I bought, that I was often exhausted by midway through the second half; and dead tired by the second intermission, if there was one. Part of that was undoubtedly celiac disease, so maybe I'll find it's not the case anymore -- but getting home from the opera nearly always involved 3 buses, and waiting in between, and it was never terribly appealing, even before Seattle's crime rate started ramping up. Going to and from the opera in broad daylight, and having the rest of the day, on the other hand, feels wonderful. And the perspective that I'm getting for my $22 is so much better than what I can get for more than twice that at Seattle Opera that I suspect I'm much more likely to patronize the Met HD series in the future. I feel a little guilty, but then Seattle Opera frustrates me, because their student rate is limited to students who are under 25 -- as though anyone past that age must be making a decent income, student or not. Not quite, Seattle Opera. Not quite.


  1. We thought (briefly) of going to that here this morning! It sounds like quite the experience - I will have to keep an eye out for the rest of the scheduled shows.

    (I really love the tagline for this blog, by the way!)

  2. So glad you got to see it! I know several people who insist that the broadcast experience is nowhere near as good as seeing it in person -- to which my response is "But if I saw it in person I'd never be able to sit close enough to see properly." (At the first intermission during last Saturday's broadcast, I ran into a friend who asked if I'd noticed a tear running down Renee Fleming's face.)

    If I ever move back to Philly, you've got to come visit some weekend so we can go see a Met broadcast at the Bridge. The seats are insanely cushy, and there's a cocktail lounge.

  3. NK, yes, go, go! It's really marvelous, and I think it makes opera more accessible to a lot of people who have previously felt cut off because they can only hear the voices, and see the actors moving around a distant stage.

    Amanda, opera with cocktails in cushy seats sounds marvelous. Now that I think about it, the theatre that I was at has a bar area -- but I suspect that one is only allowed to consume alcohol inside of it. I also suspect that they don't have mimosas, which would have been the right thing for a mid-morning opera viewing.