Will the Met’s Live in HD series significantly affect live opera?

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.

Footnotes:

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.

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10 thoughts on “Will the Met’s Live in HD series significantly affect live opera?

  1. I go to see these broadcasts because I don’t really live near any opera companies who are putting on shows and I just want to take every opportunity I can to enjoy the beauties of the operatic medium.

    • I totally respect that. I’m sure I would do the same if I lived far from an opera house. I find it curious to see how they play out though within walking distance of one of North America’s top four opera houses which is my world.

  2. Really interesting article, John! As a regular operagoer (both live and cinema performances), I, too, have been pondering this question (or rather, more generally “How will operatic broadcasts (both cinematic and online) affect the future of opera?”) for a while. Some readers left some interesting comments when I posed a similar question at the end of one of my blog posts here…

    http://operaandme.com/2011/08/19/fidelio-the-future-of-opera/

    I totally agree with you when you say that what we see in a cinema relay (be it either simulcast or pre-recorded) is the vision of the cinematic director and I think it can even sometimes detract from what the original stage director intended. And, yes, being robbed of your own view of the stage, you can often miss out on subtle gestures and happenings being played out elsewhere on the stage. Sometimes, also, I think that it doesn’t add much to see the principal singers up terribly close – although with their heavy duty stage makeup and less-than-impressive special effects (think of the spear-break and the several stabbings in yesterday’s Siegfried), it’s perhaps nice to be reminded that this isn’t a film and that it is actually being performed on a stage.

    Sound, too, as you have already pointed out is a huge problem. I fully agree that there is no way that even the top cinema audio equipment can replicate the sound of being in an auditorium – which becomes even more evident when what appears to be earth-shattering applause gets turned down to, I’m sure, a much more appropriate decibel level.

    I also constantly struggle with the decision of whether or not to clap … For me, I generally abstain from applauding – but I have been known to break this unwritten rule. Regardless of whether the performance is “live” or not, I’m not convinced that applause in a cinema 3500 miles away from the Met has any relevance.

    However, I still think that these simulcasts are really important for the future of opera

    Firstly, they are making opera a lot more accessible to the general public. I count myself really lucky that I live fairly close to London and am able to see so many good live performances. However, I hear frequently from people that they are so glad that the Met (or Royal Opera House) are screening productions in their vicinity. Not forgetting, of course, that places like Glyndebourne and Bayerische Staatsoper have streamed performances live online. This is giving opera lovers the world over a chance to see great opera close to home.

    Secondly, it allows people who ‘like’ opera (but who possibly wouldn’t consider themselves an opera ‘lover’) to see some of the biggest names in opera. As you well know, tickets to see performances (in the flesh) akin to the ones screened worldwide, are generally like gold dust and sell out incredibly early. For example, the Royal Opera House’s July performance of Tosca is being screened tomorrow in cinemas worldwide with a cast of Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel. I am incredibly lucky that I saw it live, but the cinema relay is now giving me the chance to share it with the people with whom I would have loved to have seen it. I am fully aware that this type of “star-casting” (for which the Met is famed) has its own drawbacks… but I think that’s a whole other discussion.

    And lastly, I am hopeful that these broadcasts will bring a new audience into the opera house. Since opera is an art form designed for the stage, it makes sense that if you enjoy the simulcasts and the YouTube clips and the DVD releases etc… then you are going to want to experience opera in its intended form (no screen required)! There is no doubt that a cinema broadcast is an incredible marketing tool for the opera house involved and I am sure that it will inspire a new generation of opera lovers to go and find out what it’s all about.

    And, yes, for the moment, operatic cinema broadcasting is a “phenomenon in its own right”. The real change will come when the operatic audiences are demanding thickly padded seats, popcorn and a drinks holder…

    *me*

  3. Pingback: To Screen or Not to Screen: That is the Question! | Opera And Me

  4. Good points. I sometimes forget that I live within walking distance of the opera! For those of us that lucky the broadcasts pose a real question. Few performances sell out (even in a house like Toronto that runs at 97% occupancy) and there are always a few seats on sale “day of” plus stehplatzen. They are, both, cheaper than a ticket for the MetHD at the local Cineplex. When I saw Rigoletto for the second time this season I paid $22 for my ticket. I also have other options since Toronto is rich in small opera companies. My resolve for this year is to see more live performances and fewer filmed ones. I won’t see Bryn Terfel live but if I want to see him I can watch a DVD (with better sound than in the theatre!). I will see Susan Graham, Quinn Kelsey, Jane Archibald, Russell Braun and Sir Andrew Davis among others though so I don’t feel star starved. I also saw Simone Osborne’s first Gilda (and I mean first performance not first run). Watch for that name because I suspect you’ll be queuing for tickets for her gigs not so many years from now.

    “I am sure that it will inspire a new generation of opera lovers to go and find out what it’s all about.”

    This is the thing I’m most sceptical about. When I look at the audience at the Four Seasons Centre it’s younger (a bit) than the cinema audience. It’s being created in the traditional way.; kids of opera going families, and it’s being created directly by promotion aimed at younger people; cheaper tickets for under 30s, touring operas for schools and even opportunities for the children of the rich to get involved early in the crucial fund raising side. I see no evidence that it’s being created by the cinema broadcasts. Personal experience bears that out. I have younger (ie 30ish) friends who go to the opera two or three times per year but they don’t go to the Met broadcasts.

    Would that we had data to back any of this up!

    Thanks for dropping by!

    • Good luck with your resolve to see more live opera… it can never be a bad thing! And maybe you can convince Bryn to go to Toronto – you never know! Thanks for the heads up about Simone Osborne – she hadn’t crossed my radar yet, but I’ll look her up. Anyone who can sing a good Gilda immediately ranks quite highly on my list….

      You may be right about the difference in the age of audiences between the opera house and the cinema. I guess, perhaps, my view is clouded perhaps by regular trips to the Royal Opera House (which usually sells out, and even the 67 day tickets aren’t cheap) and for which the audience can be a lot older than places like the English National Opera.

      I have to say though that having taken my mother to see the Live in HD Siegfried, she’s now bought a ticket for Götterdämmerung, might be going to see a Welsh National Opera production in the UK, and wants to take my father to the Met on holiday! So maybe it does work in a small amount of cases…

      Have really enjoyed reading your blog.

      *me*

      • I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see Bryn in Toronto. Last year I ran into Larry Brownlee, ironically at a Met broadcast! He told me that “the word on the street” was that Toronto was a good house to sing in and people wanted to sing here. I’m not surprised really. We have a gorgeous new opera house, a fantastic chorus and better than decent orchestra and a General Director who is prepared to take more risks than the bosses of North American opera companies usually seem willing to.

  5. Very interesting article John. I’ve been thinking and reading about all these issue after seeing Les Troyens. Im 22 and a regular opera goer ( I do admit to being a classical voice student!) However these broadcasts are a fantastic opportunity for me to see performers who rarely, if ever, come to Australia. Although Opera Australia is putting on the Ring Cycle this year, large operas like Les Troyens are hard to come by. There’s also a wonderful immediacy of watching the broadcast, vs waiting for the dvd to come out. I know the experience is different from seeing it live or listening to a recording on a superior system, but I still enjoyed it for what it was. I haven’t gotten to New York yet, but this is pretty good!

    • I agree with you that it is a good opportunity to see works one might otherwise not see though the Met makes pretty conservative choices about what makes it into the broadcasts. They had the chance, maybe the last chance, to broadcast Levine conducting Wozzeck with Held and Skelton and they didn’t show it!
      The “star” thing is interesting. I guess I’m lucky here in Toronto. First off we do get “stars” who Met audiences would recognize, though not as many and not as often. The hype over Elza van der Heever was especially amusing as I had recently seen her as leonora at the COC. But we also get singers who are just as good and aren’t on the Met’s radar for some reason. I’ve seen Jane Archibald twice now and I’d go see her in any coloratura role anytime. Most recently it was Franz-Josef Selig, singing Konig Marke in Tristan. He was amazing and I was lucky enough to see him sing lieder too. Admittedly Toronto is a lot easier to get to than Sydney or Melbourne.

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