Friday, 27 April 2012

Is Film changing Opera?

Is film changing opera? No doubt that Jeremiahs moaned when operas began to be heard on the radio and Heavens Above! on recordings when technology was so limited that sound was distorted and only a few minutes could be made at any time. Jeremiahs would be well advised to complain about even newer technologies, like MP3's, which also shrink the live experience. It's not film that will change opera, but the way film is used.

There's an article in the New York Times which is worth reading although it's quite flawed. It's irrelevant, for example, whether Satyagraha drew tiny audiences in Wichita, Kansas, because it was a film. Quite likely Wichita audiences don't do Philip Glass anyhow, so it's  a bad analogy. And that Satyagraha staging was designed as a theatre experience. It was so successful as theatre that even those who'd steer clear of Glass went and enjoyed. (Read more about it here and here). It was brilliant because it was created by people with theatre, circus and puppetry skills, opening out whole new territory for opera staging.  La Fura dels Baus, for example, create equally innovative stagings that open out whole new possibilties of expression. Their Le Grand Macabre (more here) interpreted Ligeti's meaning better than his music alone..So kaput to the theory that operas are now designed for film. Not the good ones, anyway.

Peter Gelb is right, though that might pain some to accept. The simple fact is that good directors create productions based on what the opera and the music tells them. Sure, they are aware that some aspects will film better than others but their primary job is to express what's in the opera. It's the film director who decides what happens in the film. Filming opera is a whole new art, which requires not only a good knowledge of music but also sensitivity to what the stage director, singers and conductor are doing with the opera. Some directors, like Brian Large, are so good that they can make stinkers of productions look good. He's effective because it's his job to focus on how things translate through the camera. It's never enough to simply "film" without proper direction. And he was around long before HD.

Theatre is not reality. Movies condition us to think they're facsimiles of life, but they aren't reality either. Maybe one day, someone will figure out how to make operas "real" but that might mean creating new operas entirely.  Operas are often most effective when they're deliberately "art". One of the finest theatrre experiences I've ever had was Glyndebourne's Purcell The Fairy Queen. It was absolutely true to baroque convention, which made a virtue of extravagant unreality. At the end, rose petals fluttered down from the ceiling, connecting audience with players on stage (read more here)  Get to Glyndebourne this summer to experience it live, because the DVD is almost unwatchable. It's filmed so literally that it might as well have been done by a mobile phone. Millions are spent of producing an opera. So why stint when it comes to filming it for the millions who will never get to see it live? Especially as DVD/HD is where the money is coming in from.

Film is never going to be the same as live, but then neither is recording. So what if voices are better balanced on broadcast than live? Sometimes the finest voices aren't big. It's much better that audiences learn to listen to quality than sheer volume, however much that impresses non-musical audiences. We listen to studio recordings, so why should filmed opera be any different? Sensitive listeners also hear the nuances in good singing more than most people realize. In the past, opera houses were not gigantic barns like the Met, so, arguably, the big voices and styles favoured in houses like that aren't necessarily the best for good music. That's why a Lieder background is good for understanding  opera, but not necessarily the other way round. You hear the close-ups as well as see them. The medium is not the message. The audience should be engaging with an opera as opera, not just "watching the movie".

That's the real danger of filmed opera : audience expectations. Two years ago, Johann Botha sang an inspired Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House (review here) but did many in the audience appreciate his  singing? "Elisabeth should have chosen Wolfram!" some said, completely ignoring the opera. Elisabeth loved Tannhäuser because he wasn't a plaster saint, but had lived. Too well, perhaps, but that's exactly what Wagner meant. Better an unattractive singer any day than a media-created pretty boy hero who looks good  but can't actually sing. Publicity departments can create overnight sensations out of last choice singers because audiences judge by appearance, not by art. Good directors - and good audiences - can work around interesting singers. Ben Heppner may be on the old side for Tristan, but he can create the part showing why the character is world-weary. Even Siegfried doesn't have to be a babe. Think of the Tristans and Tannhäusers of the past. That's Melchior squeezing into a girdle. Don't even think about Wagner's singers, who'd be booed off stage today. Are modern audiences so gullible that they forsake art for image?

In any case it's not Met HD that's changing opera. Opera movies have been with us a long, long time. Remember De Mille's 1915 Carmen, Ernst Lubitsch's 1919 Gypsy Blood and Charlie Chaplin's 1915 Burlesque on Carmen here.  Anyone who whines about Bizet's Carmen in 3D is a fool. The sky is not going to fall! (more here). Opera movies go back a long way, and have always reached more general audiences. There's even a 1905 film of Chinese opera (silent and in fragments). Think of the wild mix of Carmen and The Flying Dutchman starring Ava Gardner stark naked. (read more here) These of course aren't films of opera (some are silent) but filmed opera isn't new. Someone once told me "Europeans know nothing about opera", which reflects the extreme parochialism in some circles. The mere mention of Germans sends some people into a rage. But look out for the Hamburg State Opera series of filmed operas made for German TV in 1967-1970. I've written about their Weber's Der Freischütz (here) but their film of Alban Berg Wozzeck is infinitely better, filmed on location in a fortress in the North German marshes. (Read about it here). Now that is how opera can be filmed, true to the music, true to film. Then there are the two Verdi blockbusters, filmed in real time on location, the 1976 Tosca in Rome, and the RAI Rigoletto in Mantua (more here)  with Placido Domingo.  Realistically, it isn't going to happen too often because of cost. But filmed opera is the way forward, and it's a subject that needs to thoroughly addressed, and not just in terms of the Met and its market. 

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