09 January 2007

"Only A Dog Could Sing Such Notes": High Tech, High Def Opera

"Only a dog could sing such notes, they are so high." That is what Beverly Sills commented regarding the "mad scene" in Bellini's I Puritani, currently at the Metropolitan Opera, during last Saturday's "Live in High Definition" broadcast from The Met stage.

The notes were high and beautiful soprano Anna Netrebko sang wonderfully. How Netrebko can sing such notes -- any notes -- while lying on the floor, her head hanging over the orchestra pit, is amazing. In the middle of 30 minutes of all-out singing! If you have the opportunity to see I Puritani while Netrebko is singing the lead at the Met, don't miss it. Eric Cutler, Franco Vassallo, and John Relyea were very good too -- but Netrebko was amazing! I now understand why some people rave over Bel Canto opera. Truly Beautiful Singing.

I wasn't familiar with I Puritani, and frankly, the subject of the opera -- good grief the English Civil War? How interesting could that be? -- didn't interest me at all when I first read about it. But, the fact that the Met was broadcasting live to theatres around the globe: that fascinated me. What a great idea - bring great quality opera to people not in the NYC area via live high-def feeds. The Met will be broadcasting a few other operas in the next several weeks. If you've never gone to the opera, here is a chance to experience it without the cost, potentially the travel since opera isn't available in many places, and you can do something that you'd never do in an opera house: Eat popcorn!

Eating popcorn during intermission was okay, but I did feel a little weird when the singing started. In an opera house or a concert hall, you don't want to rustle a cough drop wrapper less you make a slight sound, much less chew noisily on popcorn! The ridiculously sized 'small' bag went immediately under the seat. It's been a long time since I went to a movie in a mainstream movie theatre (usually it's an art house/indie type film that I enjoy), but when did a small soda become 32 ounces?

A few thoughts struck me when watching the opera:

- I'd never see, even with theatre glasses, such close-ups of the singers. I was amazed that they weren't sweating more under the lights.

- I realized how much of an art film direction can be. I had no complaints about the camera shots, but I realized how I might do it differently if I were choosing. I found my self thinking a few times: move the camera to the other singer! Had I been in the house, I could have chosen where to focus my attention. That freedom is eliminated with the broadcast. It made me realize how I take the camera's role in film for granted; it really does complement the narrative and action but the viewer often doesn't notice how the camera manipulates what you are seeing.

- The interviews were an interesting feature, although I'm not sure that they knew who the audience would be. Some of the commentary was very good, but people in the audience laughed at some of it. Probably fair to say that many of the people were aficionados and the commentary tended to aim for the novice. Still, seeing the activity backstage between acts was interesting. Definitely not something most would have the opportunity to see in the theatre.

- In opera, the voice is the chief element. Many opera singers are not known for their acting abilities. Sills, in the pre-show talk (makes it sound like a football pre-game show, doesn't it?), talked about how in some operas, one should just move to center stage and sing. While it wasn't the case with this opera -- all of the principal parts seemed to have a reasonable stage presence -- I could see how some singers would be just awful to watch up close.

- In the theatre where we saw the broadcast, it was difficult to read the subtitles because of the seating arrangements. But, I was reminded of the time I saw Rigoletto in Paris. With no supratitles as is common in opera houses in the States, and with the libretto in French, I could only listen to the opera. Reading the synopsis before each act was a help, but I soon realized that I should just let the music wash over me: the emotion in the voice, accompanied by the orchestra sets the feeling and one shouldn't rely on the English titles to follow along. In some ways, it reminds me of a poetry reading where the work read is new. It isn't always possible for the reader to get every line, every allusion, but it doesn't distract from the overall experience. Listening to the opera is a similar experience.

Info on other Live from the Met High-Definition broadcasts can be found here. Consider going to one of them.


Carl V. said...

I had seen the trailers for these performances and wondered what it would be like. I agree that it would be quite weird eating popcorn at the opera! ;)

Cam said...

And how weird is it to have 'trailers' for the opera? :-)

Camille said...

Thanks so much for this post! I was completely unaware that this was available, and it turns out that I have a participating theater right in my very town. I'm a very beginner opera fan (I've only been to one live and only read and listened to maybe 3 others), and I'd really love to go to one of these. Hopefully the February one before I have a newborn to deal with. :)

Carl V. said...

I think its a cool concept, though. Glad they are trying out new and different ways to get people interested in the arts as well as allowing people who may not get a chance to go to NY, or elsewhere, to see a live performance a chance to see one.

Cam said...

Camille, I hope you can go to the February Met broadcast of Eugene Onegin. I have a Russian colleague, very knowledgable about music, who described Dmitri Hvorostovsky's voice as 'velvety baritone'. You should check out The Met's web site -- they are also doing streaming audio broadcasts throughout the season.

Carl, I agree about using technology to bring arts to more people. As the costs for the Arts increase, it becomes increasing more difficult, esp in smaller population centers, to provide a broad array of arts options. I think this is a great solution. It's not quite the same as live in-person, but it's still a great experience.

chiefbiscuit said...

I enjoyed reading about your opera experience. I listen to NZ's Concert Programme on the car radio when I drive - classical music I find is more soothing a companion to drive with than 'pop' music and braying djs. There was something mentioned on there about NY 'taking opera to the masses. So I was really interested to read from someone who has actually experienced this.