When I graduated from college 50 years ago, I expected to wind up living and laboring in a major metropolis like New York, Chicago, or Seattle where nights at the opera or symphony would have been part of the package. As you can see, my life took a much different direction. In fact, working weekends and nights along with the bottom-tier professional wages of my profession curtailed much of my attendance where I was, even for the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD showings in local movie theaters.
Surprisingly, now in the midst of our Covid-19 cloistering, I’m relishing in daily free online streaming of past performances from the Met’s series, and what a revelation they are.
Each show gives me a fuller awareness of the stellar productions than I could ever get from listening to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts – incidentally, available where I live only by streaming. Well, that’s another rant, though I’ll send out a shout to both Harvard’s student-run FM station and New York’s WQXR for their participation.
The university I attended was acclaimed for its opera department, with a show every Saturday night and, as I recall, seven productions during the regular school year. Each of these was in English, which I found made the experience feel more like going to a Broadway musical rather than an esoteric ceremony. It was pointedly called opera theater, with an emphasis on blending music and showtime, abetted by stage directors like Ross Allen who insisted on historically correct motions for the periods being presented. A woman wouldn’t have shown her ankle while dancing, for instance, or sat in a particular posture, that sort of thing. As for facial expressions or delving into the psyche of a role? That wasn’t widely valued in earlier incarnations of the art form. But today?
Back to the Live in HD.
Imagine a Hollywood movie being filmed straight-through in a few hours like this, rather than gleaning only a minute or two of usable film a day, as is standard in the cinema biz. There’s no room for retakes in a live performance, and yet what I’m viewing is cinematically gripping. The acting is extraordinary, and the stars are visually and vocally convincing – something that wasn’t often the case when I got hooked back in the ’60s. I’m enthralled simply considering the camera work (and planning) behind each of these. (I have a feeling we’re deeply indebted to NFL and MLB technology and practice on this front – think of those crisp facial closeups shot from the other side of the field.) As for the lighting? Wow.
Opera is often discussed as the pinicle of the arts and their muses – vocal, choral, and instrumental music conjoined with drama, dance, poetry, scenery and costumes in the theater itself. It’s a collective enterprise, the way movies are. Well, I often consider it as the movies of the 19th century and, let’s not forget, the distinctively operatic singing style evolved to project into a hall long before electronic amplification existed. The vocal style is not as frilly as you might think but is actually quite flexible and expressive, even if it’s often an acquired taste.
As I was saying about these productions?
Last week presented a sampling of the tradition’s biggest hits – Carmen, Boheme, Trovatore, Traviata, Lucia, plus the Daughter of the Regiment with its heart-stopping high C’s and Tchiakowsky’s poignant Eugene Onegin.
This week is an all Wagner blowout, including the four-part marathon Ring Cycle on top of Tristan, Tannhauser, and the 4½-hour Meistersinger (which would be a lot longer with its intermissions).
And next week gives us Nixon in China, Dialogue of the Carmelites, the Pearl Fishers, Norma, Macbeth, Don Carlo, and Barber of Seville – a rather extraordinary lineup itself.
Some takeaways so far:
The importance of the words: In full-screen mode, these Live in HD shows have English subtitles – modern English, rather than the stilted translations I used to wade through in trying to follow the action in the lyrics while listening to LPs back in my youth. Gee, I haven’t tried that in ages – just too many other things on my plate since then, I guess. I am surprised how well-crafted many of the lines are, by the way, and how solidly the drama is structured.
The centrality of the chorus and dancers:
The amazing stagecraft: Long gone are the blowing-in-the-breeze painted curtains, replaced by solid structures and sculptural elements. The Met’s vast stage, with a loft that can hold five shows at once, two wings with entire scenes on wagons that roll on or off the stage in minutes, and two turntables that allow scenery to turnabout quickly, eliminate long breaks – even intermissions – for set changes. The Live in HD cameras even show what’s going on backstage as this happens.
Add to that the lighting: The three-sided box Onegin was place in, for instance, kept changing color to reflect the mood. You would have sworn they were intensely painted, except that they changed while you were watching.
The centrality of the chorus and dancers: It’s not just the big choral parts or defined ballet scenes, either. Remember, they’re both actors, too, and do much as such. By the way, the dancing and physical movement – often while singing the most difficult vocal lines – is unbelievable, and that goes for the stars as well. Opera is, at many times, a spectacle.
The lavishness: Here’s the one point where I’m troubled. The Met drips in excess, an expectation of only the best, not simply in the artists it hires but also in the details that support them, from hairstylists and makeup wizards to clothing designers and tailoring and then on to the sets and furnishings. (Where does the company even store all of these – at New York warehouse pricing?) We watched one set change between acts require 80 stagehands (at union rates). I start adding up the staffing and projected payroll versus the income from a theater that seats 3,800 (the world’s largest opera house, by the way). None of it’s cheap. I’m appalled yet fascinated by the luxury. My aesthetic is much more ascetic and frugal, but there’s no denying the seduction of wealth and ostentation. Take a deep breath.
So I’m viewing this interlude as a chance to catch up, renew that curiosity that was first aroused back in my teens, even indulge in dreams without too much of that weight of responsibility pressing down.
If I have to miss watching on one night or another, I still have till 3:30 the next afternoon to check in. On those occasions, I’m finding that doing household chores is more pleasant with the laptop in sight and music in my ears, even if I can’t read all of the lyrics while working.
In the meantime, what are you doing that feels special in this time of “shelter and home”?