Sunday, 10 July 2011

Meistersinger at the Movies - the implications of filmed opera

The Glyndebourne Festival's Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg reached a world audience within weeks of its live premiere. (read review HERE) Consider the significance. Millions more will have seen this Meistersinger online and in cinemas than will ever see the production live, no matter how manyb times it repeats. What does this imply for the future of opera and indeed of classical music?

Box office receipts don't cover costs, which is why there are so many revivals of safe bets in all houses.  Revivals, DVDs, films and online broadcasts are essential because they bring in extra revenue long after the initial outlay. Without follow-ons, most opera houses couldn't operate as businesses, far less create new work. So we can't complain.

A photograph freezes a moment in time (the term properly used here). A photograph isn't the same as real life experience, and can be completely misleading. (which is why opera photos are supposed to be used with written content). When you watch a film of an opera, you need to realize that you're watching it through a filter. Directors and cameramen decide which angles to shoot, what to emphasize and what to leave out. Sure, you get better close-ups than you'd ever get live, but it's not at all. the same thing.

The filmed Meistersinger worked better than live because the camera was able to omit the oppressive fan-vaulted ceiling which hung over every scene live. Everyone who heard the film thought Gerald Finley sang brilliantly and with real force. Most of those who heard him live thought quite the opposite. In fact, I'd venture that the otherwise pointless updating of period was done in order to complement Finley's voice.He's more convincing as Romantic Poet than as Sachs the earthy, non-conformist cobbler. On film, something's been done to the sound dynamics, so Finley's performance is transformed. As an artistic choice, it's valid because it's a far better experience for the audience.

Every performance is always going to be different. There's an art to assessing singers that's lost these days when we're conditioned to judging things on the basis of performance frozen in time.  In reality, things change depending on many factors. What you hear on recording isn't necessarily true. Decades ago, Albert Remedios sang a concert when he really should have been home in bed. It saved the show but fixed his image in the popular mind to his detriment. Unfortunately some audiences think singers should be gladiators, sacrificed for audience pleasure.So listen to films - and recordings - never forgetting they're just snapshots, not the whole experience.

Walther's song was tentaive to start with, but Sachs was wise enough to see the potential in his abilities and gave him a chance. On the film, Marco Jentszch's Walther was clearly nervous, saving himself for the final Prize Song. In live performance, he was much more natural, so you could hear how interesting his voice really is, and where it might head if he's well nurtured. But you wouldn't know from the film. When assessing singers, don't be a Beckmesser, but a Sachs.

Once, people learned their music from studying scores and playing transcriptions to sing at home. That's why I posted the French In fernem Land HERE. Anyone could play that piano part: the purpose of the exercise was to listen, not to show off.  Recordings changed all that. Nowadays we're conditioned to think in  finite terms, as if a performance were a stand-alone object to be consumed. Beware "comparative recording surveys". Done well, they're useful but you can't ever judge anything by picking out the good bits.

Much (but not nearly enough) has been written about the way the internet is changing the very way we think. We think in twitter sized blips and assume the instant fix of Google is the same as reality. If we get used  to processing input in ever more superficial ways will our brains shrivel? and if not our brains. our psyche? Art challenges sound bite mindsets. What its role in society? Has it been a way to stimulate the mind and open us to new perspectives? Is creative art necessary to human evolution? Just as there are many who would deny evolution, there are probably many who'd deny the role of creative imagination.

But as always, I digress. Evolution conditions us to process visual clues more strongly than sound, unless we're blind. Thus film has the power to fix things in our minds even more than recordings. All the more, we need to be aware of the danger of forgetting that there are many different ways to think, feel and learn.  Film is a wonderfully effective way of reaching out to people, but we do need to think about its longerterm implications. Who does it reach? What does it teach? (Please also see my earlier post on how film changes opera, and other related posts on music on film)


Unknown said...

You've given me a lot to think about. Thank you.

Mendel Markel, said...

I agree that a film simply can't provide the same experience as a live Opera, for the many reasons that you covered. At the same time film does provide some things that live Opera doesn't cover. At the end of the day, the benefits of film don't come close to making up for what they lack.

However, I do think that film does allow opera to reach further than it might otherwise. There are changes going on in the world and they are happening whether we embrace them or not, so I think we might be best thinking how to use these changes in the best possible way. Just my 2 cents.

Either way, great article. I especially appreciate that while you did voice an opinion, you did also present both sides of the coin. Many thanks.

Jim N said...

More people have access to recorded music than ever before. On the flip side fewer people make their own live music than ever before. Therefore, they're out-of-touch with the skill and experience necessary to turn out a good performance.