I’ve been giving far too much thought to a range of issues surrounding the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD broadcasts to cinemas. They have attracted a wide audience and are much talked about, both as performances and as to their impact on live opera; the so-called HD Generation. That said, I’ve seen little analysis of what the broadcasts really are or of their audience or of how and why the HD audience reacts to them the way it does. I want to explore those questions and then go on to look at whether and how the HD broadcasts might influence the practice of live opera. Some of this will be speculative as I am certainly not privy to the kind of data about the audience and its reaction that I would need to do what I want to do well. Some of it will be coloured, perhaps highly coloured, by my own experiences with live music, electronically reproduced music and the tricky relationship between them.
So what then are the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcasts and what do they mean? In answering that let’s turn first to what is meant by “Live in HD”. We are experiencing the performance “live” in the sense that it is in near real time with no opportunity to edit out bloopers etc. But it’s highly mediated in the sense that we are shown what a video director wants us to see and what a sound engineer wants us to hear (at best, see below). It’s quite unlike the experience of being in the house where one’s sonic experience is what the house acoustics provide; no more, no less, and one’s visual experience is self managed. One can focus on the stage. One can get the opera glasses out and focus in on this or that singer. One can shut one’s eyes. For all but the last of these, in the cinema, the video director is in control, not the audience members. The video director also has an option of presenting close up action closer by far than one gets from the front row of the orchestra stalls. The sound too can be greatly influenced by the engineering. The balance between singers and audiences can be changed. Weak voices can be made to seem more adequate. It’s a far from lifelike live experience.
So what of “High Definition”. Technically this refers simply to the amount of information captured in each video frame but clearly it’s being used here to suggest a vividly accurate reproduction of what s going on on stage and in the pit. Even beyond the impact of conscious direction/editing decisions I think there is a problem here. Video capture and presentation may well have reached the point where a cinema image is virtually indistinguishable from reality but that is emphatically not true for sound. Notoriously, even the best recordings struggle with really dense sonic textures and, for reasons that I don’t think are well understood, are rather harsh on heavier high pitched voices. One notices this even listening at reasonable volume to good recordings on excellent sound reproduction equipment though, nowadays, it can be surprisingly faithful. However, this issue becomes particularly acute in cinemas where the sound system is not designed or optimized to reproduce unamplified classical music. It’s designed for car chases, explosions and dialogue and, normally, is run very loud (no doubt to drown out popcorn swilling and giggling teenagers). The experience of listening to opera through such systems and at such volumes is anything but “high fidelity”. At it’s best it’s not bad but hardly comparable to the opera house experience, at worst it’s physically painful. It is certainly far less realistic than listening to a good DVD or BluRay recording through reasonably high quality domestic equipment(fn1). I contend that the combination of human decisions, technological trickery and cinema sound limitations means that the cinema experience is really quite removed from that of the audience in the house and that both “live” and “HD” are ideologically freighted terms of limited accuracy.
The second issue to explore then is how the cinema audience perceives the broadcasts and how this then shapes their perception of opera and/or affects their ticket buying behaviour (for both future broadcasts and for live opera). Here one is seriously handicapped by lack of data. My data sources are what I see in my local cinema, what I read (whether in print or through all sorts of electronic media) and what I glean from conversations of attendees at the broadcasts; in the cinema, on-line at the bus stop or whatever. My first observation is that the audience is uncritical and largely unaware of the sort of issues I’ve talked about above. The Metropolitan Opera tells them that they are getting the next best thing to a front row seat at the Met and by and large they buy it. I suspect that a pretty high proportion of the audience lacks recent experience of live performances in a decent opera house and therefore have little to compare with. Others are consciously or unconsciously compensating for what they know are deficiencies and others still just can’t tell the difference (fn2).
Effects on ticket buying behaviour run the gamut from stopping buying tickets for live shows because “for $20 one can see the top stars close up and it’s even better than being there” (paraphrase from memory of a conversation at the cinema) to a resolution to keep cinema trips to a minimum and budget the money for local low budget shows instead. What I have yet to see evidenced, despite the plea in every Met broadcast intermission, is any evidence that anyone decides to go to the Met or “their local opera house” for the first time because of the Met broadcasts though I’d certainly entertain the thought that the broadcasts broaden individuals’ views of what repertoire they are prepared to go and see. My guess is that the whole thing is at best overall neutral in terms of total live tickets sold. There exists the potential, perhaps, that if more people are seeing more productions (HD and live combined) that people will become less tolerant of “no ideas” traditional productions but maybe that’s just my optimistic streak shining through.
What then is the effect of the broadcasts on the practice of opera? (And maybe more important, what should it be?). First I would say that the relationship between the broadcasts and live opera is quite tenuous and the effects are more potential than real. I don’t see the broadcasts becoming a substitute for live opera for any significant number of people nor do I see them much conditioning what people expect to see in the opera house anyway. I think there is some impact on casting decisions; especially of female singers, but this probably only reinforces a trend that was already well under way. The slim, pretty soprano will always have a leg up when it comes to casting Pamina or Violetta but I don’t expect a tidal wave of sylph like Brünnhildes any time soon. If there is a threat it is that directors, composers or general managers will become seduced by the sound balancing opportunities offered by miking singers and amplifying in the house. I don’t think it’s likely because the technology for it existed long before the MetHD broadcasts and I don’t see any sign that the MetHD audience is beating down the opera house doors to demand this or that existing patrons would put up with it.
Finally, do the broadcasts change the nature of the Met brand and it’s overall hegemonic position in the North American opera market? I’m inclined to think not. The Met already has a virtual monopoly of DVD production in North America so being able to flood the market with productions already “in the can” from the broadcasts won’t affect that; either from a revenue or an exposure point of view. Will seeing a bunch of very traditional or unchallenging Met productions impact what people expect from their local opera company? I doubt it. GD’s will still be as innovative as they think their subscriber and donor base will stand. Some of us will cheer and the traditionalists will moan about the good old days, just like now.
Bottom line, while I think the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcast series has generated a lot of air (hot and otherwise) I think its essential failure to be in the fullest sense “live” or “high definition” will limit its impact on live opera while no doubt continuing as a phenomenon in its own right.
1. What is “reasonably high quality domestic equipment”? This is a tricky question but I’d argue that if one listens to recorded music through a stereo system made up of separate components from reputable manufacturers or a comparable quality surround sound system at a realistic volume one will get vastly better sound than in the cinema. The built in speakers on a TV or an “all in one” home theatre system maybe not so much! FWIW and for the benefit of those who read my DVD reviews I use an LG Blu-Ray player feeding a 6.1 speaker set up (mixed Monitor Audio and B&W) via an Outlaw 1050 multichannel receiver. I’d rate that as a pretty good but by no means high end set up. In any event it’s better than cinema quality by a country mile.
2. The average age of the audience seems to be even older at the cinema than at the Four Seasons Centre so I wouldn’t rule out hearing impairment as a factor.