Met Opera’s ‘Live in HD’: The screen can’t hear when you yell ‘Bravo!’

New York Times News ServiceNovember 9, 2012 

With just a mouse click, the State Theatre’s website illustrates the reality of U.S. opera today, which I observed as I traveled through the country over the past six months, watching the 11 broadcasts in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012-13 season’s “Live in HD” series. Through the HD broadcasts the Met has attained dominance of the field: not as a standard to which regional companies can aspire, as in the past, but as a permanent and sometimes intrusive presence in their communities.

I recently wrote about how watching opera in cinematic close-up, with Dolby surround sound, changes the performance in ways large and small. But the most distorted and distorting part of the HD experience comes at the times when a live audience repays a brave performance with enthusiastic applause.

Without fail, some watching the broadcasts shout “bravo” with gusto. But most of the audience doesn’t quite know what to do, caught between the intensity opera elicits and the sobering realization that, well, they are in a movie theater, perhaps thousands of miles from what they want to cheer and even farther from the relationship live performance engenders.

For all the praise HD deserves, and it deserves a great deal, this disconnect is damning. What the audience in a movie theater experiences is not just the opposite of opera. It is the undoing of opera, an art form in which a present, active audience is fundamental.

“Operas in general,” the critic Marcel Prawy wrote, “can only be properly enjoyed when audience, orchestra and stage form a compact community.” Its history is a history of being there: of applause and booing and rapt silence, the symbiosis between performers and audience. An image, in high definition, 3-D or any other permutation, creates only the illusion of intimacy. It is a cooler, more detached art form.

Because the broadcasts so closely mimic the experience of live opera — you join a group of people, some of whom have dressed for the occasion, in a darkened theater at an appointed time — the “Live in HD” series subtly retrains opera audiences in passive consumption rather than active participation. This retraining affects live performances as well, at least at the Met, where politely warm, trailing-off applause is now the norm.

At the opening night of the Met’s season in September the soprano Anna Netrebko sang the fiendishly difficult title role in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena.” As she completed the first part of the final scene, the ravishing aria “Al dolce guidami,” she slowly diminished the last note to nothing. After an instant of silence, the audience erupted in cheers that went on far longer than is usual at the Met these days. Netrebko, who had ended the aria gazing upward, suddenly gave a wide smile, driving the audience to even greater applause.

It was a moment of engagement — of human relationship — between artist and audience that was once common but is now noteworthy for its rarity. So rare that many reviews mentioned it, some of them critical of Netrebko for her supposed lack of dramatic commitment. It’s true that actors in movies don’t break character like that, and we are increasingly going to the opera as though it were a movie.

The HDs are working, at least in terms of the Met’s larger strategy. In 2007 a writer for The Guardian told the company’s general manger, Peter Gelb, that he found the experience of seeing “The Barber of Seville” in the movie theater better than being at the Met.

“Oh, no, that’s bad,” Gelb groaned. “We must be doing too good a job.” The writer added, “Then he allowed himself a smile of well-deserved gratification.”

When it comes to HD, Gelb has reason to feel gratified. The broadcasts have been a material success — well attended and profitable — and the Met is quick to argue that they promote a tenuously surviving art form in a way that helps everyone, a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Christopher Hahn, director of the Pittsburgh Opera, said he viewed the broadcasts as augmentation of his company’s offerings rather than as competition, but he added, “My assumption is, in smaller regional areas with smaller companies with limited resources, yes, indeed, rather than supporting a local civic enterprise, which may not have many resources but is at least a focus of live opera, maybe in those areas people would act to see the quality of the Met rather than going locally.”

Everyone I spoke to praised the way the “Live in HD” series “puts opera in the general public’s mind,” as Dennis Hanthorn, the general director of the Atlanta Opera, phrased it. Yet no one suggested that it is giving concrete help to local companies.

So if the HD broadcasts are not bringing any sizable new audience to live opera, what are they doing? They are the latest iteration in the Met’s fantastically successful history of marketing itself, from live tours to the beloved radio transmissions to television specials. And the success of the “Live in HD” program has distracted from the fact that under Gelb the company has had a mediocre track record in making new productions. One message of the broadcasts is that even if the Met is not an artistic leader, it can still package the product better than anyone.

Which is no small feat. The broadcasts have brought opera to places far from any live opera, and it is beautiful that the art form, in any form, is accessible to such a wide audience at a reasonable price. The HD series is part of a culture in which audiences are divorced from live performance. It is also a result of the increasingly detached productions and performances they are seeing on the Met stage. Gelb likes to talk about the theatricality he is seeking. Yet he more accurately describes his Met when he praises the director Michael Grandage’s work for its “cool and elegant aplomb.”

Cool and elegant productions result in chilled responses, and neither has much to do with opera. Opera is hot and passionate. So it is telling that Gelb has enthusiastically embraced a medium that lowers the temperature of the art form.

The HD program is revolutionary and is sure to lead to even more revolutionary ideas. It won’t be long before you’ll be able to stream the Met’s performances — any Met performance — live on your computer, smartphone or tablet. That is how the new audience for opera will be found, in a way simultaneously more artificial and more genuine than the seductive illusion of live performance in the HD series.

Growth will continue. Gelb indicated that his next priority is expansion to theaters in Russia and China. But as that happens, it is important to go forward aware of the effects of this new form, constantly fighting for the important things: more live opera; more varied repertory; more passionate, authentic performances.

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