One bright spot in for me in this Covid-19 self-isolation has been the Metropolitan Opera’s nightly streaming of a Live in HD performance from its archive. As I mentioned in a March 23 posting, these are free and available until 3:30 the next afternoon. Better yet, the series is continuing. I’ve now seen more operas this way than I’ve seen live and in concert combined.
As I mentioned in “Spending nights at the opera on my laptop,” watching these performances is quite different from listening to them on the radio, and some of the things that stand out for me are the extraordinary level of the acting, by not just the principal singers but everyone on stage, leading to the important presence of the chorus in its role as actors and not just voices, and the brilliance of the opera’s dancers, who I’ll argue are highly underappreciated – they even move much of the set around during some productions. Yes, and those sets and costumes are amazing, even with all of the excessive luxury, expense, and unbelievable perfection that the video cameras catch even when those in the audience are oblivious at their distance. This is as close to the ideal, overall, as anyone could ever expect in live theater.
The backstage videos and interviews have also deepened my appreciation. Many kudos.
That said, let me note ten more distinctive things that are jumping out for me as I watch:
- The oath. Or, in far fewer instances, a vow. I hadn’t notice this before, but in at least 90 percent of opera, the entire drama revolves around a sworn declaration – often forced upon someone, as in a deathbed scene, but sometimes from youthful outbursts. Watch for this, as I am now. And then, swear not, as Jesus counseled. It always leads to trouble.
- The physicality of the singers. Gone are the days of lining up the big voices and the chorus behind them. Nowadays, they’re running and jumping and dancing while singing the most incredibly difficult music, even when they get a break to drop back on their backs. Look, to sing like this you need a LOT of breath (try to follow them as they sing and see where they pause to inhale) and then think about all of the other demands on their air. Got me? It’s amazing.
- The swordfights. Remember, this is live, with no room for a retake. And it’s convincing.
- Dancing or miming the overture or prelude. The opening music has often seemed like a spacer to establish the mood while latecomers arrive. Something like a mini-symphony, to spotlight the instrumentalists, before we get to the real stuff. Some of the newer productions, however, are raising the curtain by the time the conductor enters the orchestra pit and feature dancing or acting during the introductory music. It’s like showing a movie scene before rolling the credits, and even more impressive. Why haven’t we always done it this way?
- Updating the action. Trying to reset the historical setting of the story is always tricky, but when it works, it’s brilliant. Note the Met’s “Rigoletto,” move to gambling Las Vegas, which we’ve not yet viewed. But everything I’ve seen so far along these lines has been brilliant. “Macbeth” as a ‘ 50s rebellion definitely fits, once we take it out of Scotland. As does Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutti” in Coney Island, though I wish they had swapped the couples at the finale – this production had room for that feminist power reintrepretion.
- Appreciating the subtitles. I love that these are contemporary translations, unlike the tortured Victorian-era lines I tried to follow way back when. As an exacting editor, I appreciate their high quality (only one or two places I’d object as a grammarian), My sole qualm has been in religious references when these drop into “Biblical” language, the “thee” instead of “you” line of speech, even in Drudic and Hindu instances.
- On-stage touches. Everytime I see flames in a scene, I wonder how they got that bit past the fire marshal. Not just cigarettes or cigars (hope they don’t inhale, it’s bad for the voice) to candles and torches and fireplaces and conflagrations that level a village. The use of puppetry is incredibly effective, as we’ve seen especially in “Butterfly.” And then there are the wigs, even for the chorus. (More than 2,000 a season, as we learned in a backstage interview.)
- The animals. Yes, dogs, horses, donkeys, and more … on stage!
- The collegiality of the cast. The days of the infamous prima donna is largely gone. Singers today are generally professional and respect the work of others, even when they tackle the same roles. It’s apparent in the interviews.
- Conducting. It’s not the same as leading a symphony, and I find these maestro’s motions much harder to follow. For one thing, they’re way ahead of the beat. Even so, the Met band is glorious, a far improvement over the rough-edged ensemble before James Levine’s tenure. The audience doesn’t start applauding as soon as a big singer ends an aria, either, but waits for the final orchestral note fades.
Is there anything that’s making this period of shelter-in-place somehow special?