After the Fat Lady Sings, It’s Still Not Over

Okay, you aren’t an opera fan? What? You say you love opera, a real Queen’s Throat devotee? Or maybe, more likely, Verdi and Wagner aren’t top 25 on your iPod playlist? If so, have you considered this?

Even before the advent of sound film in the late 20s turned a mature, not really so-silent, medium topsy-turvy (the first sound feature did have singing), opera was the closest art form that expressed the emotive power of cinema. Opera exploited dramatic and comedic story and acting, extravagant costume and set design, dramatic lighting and sound effects, deus ex machina hyper-kinetic stage action with lots of swordplay and stabbings, even mad women throwing themselves off parapets—and of course, intensely emotional music. Can we call it proto-cinema?

And in large parts of Europe it has never been just an elitist entertainment. Mozart’s late great work The Magic Flute was not grand opera but Singspiel, a populist mix of lowbrow comedy mashed-up with Masonic humanist ideals. It premiered not at the Vienna State Opera but in a working-class theater outside the Ringstrasse. In much of 19th century Italy, the manic hi-jinks and “noises-off” insanity of the operas of Rossini, as well as the more turgid melodramas of Bellini and Donizetti, were huge popular hits, with the signature arias sung by street vendors the morning after the premiere.

It was in the United Sates that opera became the province of an over-educated and hyper-indulged elite. That started to change a bit in the 30s with the Texaco Saturday matinee radio broadcasts, re-conceived a few decades ago when PBS began its Great Performances series, “Live from the Met”. Still, that had low reception on most people’s radar and PBS itself has always been a target for right wing legislators who think they know better than you or I, the taste of “the people”.

But three years ago, the new general manager of the Met, Peter Gelb, began an experiment. It has been successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. In a chain of cinemas already equipped for HD presentations, the Met initiated a program of live transmissions in HD, beamed live to cinema-goers on over 700 screens in the US and Canada as well as a total of 40 countries worldwide.  On entering the theater, you already see onscreen shots of the grand curtain and of the milling audience inside Lincoln Center’s Met Opera House. You start to feel, even before the performance begins, as if you are there. In past seasons, I have seen Met Opera in HD in LA and NYC and on location in Vancouver and Shreveport. My wife’s sister and family drive to Tulsa and St. Louis with children and grandchildren for these highly anticipated opera outings.

The fourth Met Opera in HD season will begin this coming October even as it continues to increase its venues. In the meantime, from Aug. 27 until Sept. 7, on these dog days of summer, there were free public HD screenings on the Lincoln Center Plaza of ten archived productions, There was space for 2800 people each night—first come, first served. Here is a recent story outlining the series, from the NY Times.

I bring it up on this blog because I think this is a telling example of how digital cinema can present, as well as transform, “old media”. A simple illustration of this, shown at the broadcasts, is how singers, at the conclusion of an act, even as the curtain drops and they begin the walk back to their dressing rooms for a break and costume change, are followed by a steadicam camera threading through the maze of backstage set pieces, stagehands moving humongous walls and flats, playing a kind of dodge-ball with one another. This even looks like a staged cinematic backdrop, burly extras crossing as if on cue, while an interview is being conducted on the fly. The effect is startling. Thirty seconds before, you have seen the soprano collapse onstage at the end of a grief-stricken aria. Now, she is chatting, still out of breath, into a handheld radio mike.

Every production, in addition to the stage director, has an HD video director who sometimes ignites an otherwise staid production with intricate camera choreography. One of the best of these wizards is Gary Halvorson, whose every production I eagerly anticipate. In the NY Times article hotlinked above, Times music critic Anthony Tommasini praises the sailing ship set of Britten’s Peter Grimes, designed by Scott Paskis, but then continues by describing how Halvorson’s visual conception notches up the emotional pitch of the opera.

In March of the 2007 season, the screening of Puccini’s one act trilogy Il Trittico documented the between act frenzy of IATSE Local 1 stagehands changing from the set of Il Tabarro to Suor Angelica— from a French river barge and dock of the former, to the full plaza and cathedral façade of the latter. More than 125 stagehands reset the stage in less than 20 minutes while a steadicam roamed among them and two remote cameras hawked down on the doings from above. This purely visual entr’acte was its own drama, a near equal to that of the opera itself.  This is not your grandfather’s afternoon at the opera.

Each production is not merely captured by HD cameras. They are each uniquely staged to, and as one with, the distinct onstage choreography of the production. Some are quieter, intimate and the cameras choose mostly medium and close-up coverage. Several operas are staged using multi-media projections on a scrim. The HD cameras remain more proscenium oriented and centered to the audience’s POV in order to capture the effect of the curtain-like 2-D staging against the shifting flow of the projected images. Several productions invoke highly stylized, architectural-like sets. Dramatic camera angles support this vision. In short, the operas are all different—a far cry from the standard “line ‘em up in a row and shoot” aesthetic too often seen in filmed opera past.

In addition to a battery of proscenium placed cameras, the Met HD productions use robotic cameras at a very low angle, mounted on a rail track tucked between the back of the orchestra pit and the prompter’s box. There are also two large technocranes placed extreme stage left and stage right, just off the stage apron. All these cameras are charged with an intense sense of fluidity — if not quite the schizoid frenzy of music videos. The low angle robotics, especially, alternate between dramatic wide-angle shots and a longer lens close-up intimacy that almost makes you feel as if you are in the prompter’s box itself.

Here is a trailer for the upcoming Met season that has a montage of shots from past season’s productions.  The cuts are too fast to really track the camera movements fully but it is a suggestion.

I know it is difficult to “get” a big screen feel from a website video but even here you get a sense of how dramatic the lighting is, how cinematic, rather than “theatrical” is the use of spatial depth and how fluidly the camera moves.

In my first blog piece, I spoke about a visit I had made to Vince Pace’s HD digital 3-D facility in Burbank. After showing me his “show reel” full of 3-D effects, a sort of 50s 3-D efx redux, I told him of my own interest in shooting 3-D in a more naturalistic style—without the flying objects “coming at ya”. He took Rob Hummel and me on a short walk to a new post-production facility he is building. We entered a screening room with a large silvered screen for Real 3-D. He showed us a short film he had done as a promo for a possible European 3-D HDTV arts channel. The film presented a white tutu costumed corps de ballet— like something out of the second act of Swan Lake. The dance moved laterally, slowly on a cathedral like, cross-lit stage. The sense of immersion into the corps was startling. It was like being one of the dancers rather than like a viewer, passively watching. Please, no rude jokes about how I might look in a tutu. The slowly tracking camera, with an ever-shifting perspective, was magical.

Later, I had an epiphany. So far I have restrained myself from emailing it to Peter Gelb. But maybe I will. More likely, he’s already three steps ahead of me. What if the Met HD transmissions were “coming to you soon”— in 3-D? Can you imagine the opera clips you’ve just seen in 3-D? I can, I really can.

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