February 5, 2009
The arrival of opera production simulcasts (and re-runs of simulcasts) on cinema screens across the country and abroad is one of the most exciting advances for the operatic art form.
Last night, as I settled into my cushy, armchair-like seat at a movie theater in Emeryville, California to watch a re-run of the Metropolitan Opera's Orfeo ed Euridice simulcast starring Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo and Danielle de Niese as Euridice in a production by Mark Morris, a feeling of comfortable solitude came over me. I rarely experience this feeling in the opera house where I'm usually with a friend (or group of friends), wearing fancy clothes, have a lot less leg-room and no armchair holder in which to place a cup of tea.
There's also something marvelous about getting all those close-ups from the camera angles. For example, if I had experienced Morris' production live, I wouldn't have been able to see all the different costumes worn by the chorus. Decked out to represent a variety of famous personages from history such as Queen Elizabeth I, Jimi Hendrix and Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, the chorus members' regalia would have been hard to see even from the best seats in the house. But cinema audiences were able to examine many of these beautiful costumes up close. I felt at these times like I had one of the best seats in the house -- and it only cost me $19.
On the other hand, some directors of simulcasts still have a lot to learn about how best to capture the art form on camera. Last night, the camera was so busy -- it never stayed in one place for more than five seconds -- that I started to feel nauseous from the near-constant movement on screen. The obsession with close-ups over wide-angle shots was equally irritating. Sometimes I wanted the camera to pull back and let me see the entire stage for a while so I could take in the vista in its entirety. But I was rarely given the chance to do this. More often than not, the camera would swoop in for a close-up of Blythe's face, then pan to give us a quick (and completely unnecessary) shot of the area behind the main set, then move in again to capture the dancers' feet, then head upwards for a shot of part of the chorus etc. etc. A lot of this stuff was gimmicky and irritating and made me feel giddy.
The experience did, however, leave me with a vision for the potential future of opera simulcasts: Imagine being able to experience a simulcast of an opera production on a personal screen with complete control over where the camera flies around the set. The viewer could decide when to take in the entire stage, when to swoop in for close-ups and when to take a closer look at what's going on in the orchestra pit. The experience would then more closely resemble that of going to see a live production in an opera house in the sense that audience members looking at the stage would be able to choose, albeit in a limited way, which elements of the mise-en-scene to focus on at any given moment.