Opera is supposed to be gesumkunstwerk—total artwork—but its very artistic complexity puts it out of reach for many who would otherwise enjoy it. It takes expensive resources to produce it at all, and tremendously expensive resources to do it at the highest level; as a result, tickets for live opera are costly. For local live opera, ticket prices run about the same as low- to mid-range tickets for a Hurricanes hockey game, but tickets at New York's Metropolitan Opera can run into the hundreds of dollars, not counting the airfare, hotel, cabs and meals.
So when the Met began simulcasting HDTV versions of its live productions—not just putting them on the radio—many people eagerly adopted this new way of getting their opera fix. Opinions in the North Carolina opera community seem to be mixed as to whether this is good. Some producers, like the Asheville Lyric Opera and the Greensboro Opera, believe cinema opera encourages interest—and ticket sales—for local opera productions, and embrace and promote the HD broadcasts. Other observers feel that perhaps the locals might not fare so well stacked up against the Met, or major European companies, and that over time, these inexpensive broadcasts will erode support for local, far less lavish, opera productions.
As a person for whom the live part of live performance is crucial, I've been skeptical about these "live" telecasts: Could they possibly generate the same—or some of—the thrill of being in the same room with artists working their hearts out?
This past weekend I made my first foray into this surprising nexus of production and presentation technologies, and found many avid fans. I arrived at the Brier Creek Regal 14, located in a strip mall near the airport, a full 30 minutes before show time for the Met's live broadcast of Giacomo Puccini's 1910 La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the West). Despite my early start, I found the parking lot jammed and my choice of seat restricted to the far rear or the far front by the large crowd who'd gotten there much earlier. Brier Creek, along with Regal North Hills Stadium 14, are just two of many theaters around the country receiving the Met's Live in HD seasons in simulcast; each opera is generally rebroadcast to the theaters about 10 days later (La Fanciulla returns Jan. 26), and occasionally there is an encore presentation some months later.
I was excited—I'll probably never hear Deborah Voigt in person—and fully expecting to be wowed by HD sight and sound. But something was wrong, somewhere along the technical line. The only parts in full HD crispness with really vibrant sound were the interviews conducted during the lo-o-o-ng intermissions! I moved from the back row to the front, finally settling in the third row, aligned with the wall speakers, but the sound still was not as good as I could get at home, and some of the images looked like they'd been shot on VHS tape. However, a regular patron told me that neither sight nor sound was up to standard, so we'll put it down to a glitch. (One possible remedy could be to try watching at North Hills next time.)
A live broadcast, or a performance recorded live, differs from a performance one experiences directly. Maybe most important, someone else is choosing what you look at, and how you look at it. The control room director, cueing the various cameras and directing their action, is the unacknowledged artist here.
La Fanciulla, set in a mining camp, saloon and cabin in the high Sierras during the California gold rush, is quite active, with a large cast of men and a single woman, Minnie. The TV director was perhaps a bit overzealous in reacting to all that action, though naturally the camera lingered lovingly on Voigt and her pistol-packing cleavage—but sometimes I'd rather have been lingering on the tenor, Marcello Giordani. Still, I was seeing things I would not have seen, even really live at the Met, in the priciest of seats. The ability of the camera to zoom you right up next to the singers is pretty wonderful, and it is cool to see the scenic workers rebuilding the world during intermission. (Watch the poker scene from La Fanciulla del West.)
La Fanciulla, with its untouched virgin heroine—safe from the rough men's clamorous desires due more to her purity than her ability with the repeating Winchester and the aforementioned double-barreled derringer. Its plot of salvation through love exploits the far end of the Mythic Woman spectrum. Carmen, Bizet's gorgeous 1875 opera, goes all the way to the other end, to the often-touched devil woman, whose "loves" are no more than infatuated sexual dalliances. Where Minnie brings life and joy, Carmen brings death and suffering, making the two operas particularly interesting to see back-to-back. As it happened, the day after the broadcast of La Fanciulla, Carmen cast her recorded spells, very much in HD, at Cary's Galaxy Cinema.
There was widespread confusion on websites and listings about exactly which production of Carmen would be shown—it was not, after all, from La Scala, but part of the 2010–11 season at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. The production values of the broadcast (of a performance last October) are excellent, and the camera direction is much less showy, more conducive to losing oneself in the action and stirring music. The sound quality is good, and the singing is often great, making this well-known work fresh and powerful. A traditionalist opera buff (from Burlington!) griped afterward about the "Eurotrash" staging, but if you care for modernized classics, you will appreciate the contemporary production design—as when we see the smugglers moving flat-screen TVs. (The theater's website has a video clip that provides a flavor of the show.)
Early on, the soldiers, foreshadowing the Rolling Stones, sing an operatic precursor to "Factory Girl," as the cigarette girls emerge—then Carmen appears, like a jaguar, and even if you don't know the story, you know that trouble is in town, and sweet little Michala doesn't stand a chance. Still, it was a duet between Michala (Marina Poplavskaya) and Don José (Roberto Alagna), with the camera moving in tight as their faces move closer, each breathing in the other's joyous golden notes, that made me an HD opera fan.