Live in HD: Opera for the Addicted
La danse au chant se mariait,
d’abord indécise et timide
plus vive ensuite et plus rapide,
cela montait, montait, montait, montait!
I read these words in translation at the bottom of a movie screen at the massive theater on Union Square last week; they mean, roughly, “the dance was wed to the music; at first indecisive and timid, but then more lively and rapid, it climbed, climbed, climbed, climbed!” I saw Carmen half a dozen times last season, and as I watched the same performance projected onto a movie screen — part of the Met’s Summer Encore series, which screen at sixish on Wednesdays and Thursdays around the world — I wondered how many of my fellow audience members were thinking about what Bizet might have made of the flick when they read those words.
While opera has inspired strong traditionalist sentiments for the better part of this century, there’s no denying that the composers now canonized were not a couth bunch; characterized as irreverent by by their contemporaries, they were unquestionably indulgent — or perhaps more kindly, brave: they used every tool at their disposal — entire orchestras provided the music; the loudest and most expressive singers in the world portrayed the characters; enormous quantities of gilt and candlewax were expended illuminating ornate opera houses all night; troupes of dancers in dazzling and absurd costumes paraded the stage for hours. Sometimes sets were destroyed and rebuilt before the end of the evening. Mozart was notoriously fond of featuring “freaks” and exotic animals in his casts. Even the German composers, now thought of as conservative, set scenes underwater, created storms and sunrises, wrote devils and dragons and giants into their scripts. Wagner even commissioned a new instrument when the old ones couldn’t meet the demands of his music (it’s still around; it’s called the Wagner Tuba).
Operatic composers made their mark because they weren’t afraid to go anywhere, and they used whatever they could get their hands on to make their visions real to their audiences. If they were alive now, I don’t doubt that they would have tried film. But that doesn’t settle the question of whether we, as devotees rather than creators, should be transferring their works from one medium to another. In the first place, these pieces weren’t written for the screen, and the traditions of opera are highly tailored to its inconveniences: massive opera halls, poor visibility, small budgets compared to films. Sets are only as detailed as they need to be; the finest singers in the world are required, and they’re not always the handsomest; and costumes are designed to stand out a mile away, but may not hold to scrutiny up close. All of this can draw you out of the dream and the story.
On the other hand, it does have its perks for the nerds in the audience. I loved being able to watch the conductor grimace, to see the musicians flex their fingers, and finally figuring out whether it’s violas or clarinets that provide the trills in the entre’acts (it varies). The dancers definitely benefited from higher visibility; much of their art and efforts are lost on stage to those who don’t bring opera glasses (which always feels a bit silly, and gives each ballerina six wobbly legs). And it’s nice not to have to wait through intermissions or miss subtitles. But the real advantage, to my mind, is that seeing an opera in a movie theater strips the form of its most unappealing quality: the pretentiousness.
If you ever get lucky enough to score box seats at the Met — I once got free tickets, center parterre, for Tristan und Isolde; it was incredible — you’ll be shocked at how many people fall asleep before the end of the night, snoring into their silks. I forget, when I’m massaging my calves in standing-room (my all-too usual place), that some people go to the opera to be seen there rather than to see; but it’s really true — the opera is a grail for artists and always will be, but it’s also an institution supported by people who want to be associated with it, and that breeds something insincere into its culture.
Nobody goes to Regal Cinemas at 6:30 on a Wednesday to be seen there. Nobody cares what you’re wearing, and nobody’s snoring. Nobody has to stand in the back or punish their feet or suffer vertigo in the cheap seats. And when you leave, you notice that everyone is smiling. They’re just a bunch of nerds doing what they love, and I find that I love them for it; and it’s nice to surrounded by people whom you feel warmly towards.
Some would argue that an opera is meant to be heard in HD, not seen that way; but I have to disagree. As Bizet’s own libretto suggests, opera is about the marriage of dance and music (and costumes and acting and sets and lights and sex): a feverish mix of media, a synthesis that somehow exceeds the merits of its components, that climbs and climbs and climbs —
Proust once wrote that all kisses between lovers are vain efforts to reach something unworldly, something only tangential to the body of the beloved — and that they are, for their purposes, no more effective than pressing the dead lips of fish against one another. But we continue to kiss, because we have to; because to be human is to desire to; because at perfect moments, we come breathtakingly close to that wordless thing we’re seeking. The same is true of opera: every work is ridden with superficial flaws, from the moment of its composition, at times not quite saying what it wants to say, inherently a world apart from the real-life emotions that its composer hoped to convey, burdened by its lack of consequence; but some are less flawed than others, and we’re able to fall in love with them for what we see underneath their clumsy corporeal executions, for the earnestness of their efforts, for the way they manage to compel us to see something more. Like lovers, we forgive them their faults for the beauty of their visions.
The truth is that I can’t stop myself any more. I go whenever I have the chance. I don’t know if that makes me an addict or a lover or a drama queen, and I don’t really care. Any opera is better than nothing; and since the summer is off-season, I’ll take what I can get at Union Square.
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