Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Metropolitan Opera in HD

The Met is offering an attractive schedule of its productions via satellite to viewers at remote locations around the globe. These live offerings supplement the Met's radio broadcasts, which have been a mainstay of the Met's outreach for over 60 years. The Met insists on venues having appropriate receiving equipment, both video and audio, to receive its HD transmissions. For many viewers who cannot or do not attend live opera performances on-stage (either at the Met or elsewhere), these HD broadcasts are an attractive, relatively low-cost opportunity to see opera as presented by one of the world's great opera companies.

For opera lovers who attend live opera in the opera house more frequently than occasionally, however, the Met's HD broadcasts may have only limited appeal. Even at a lovely venue like the restored Paramount Theater here in Charlottesville, the sense of occasion that attends a live performance in the house is largely lacking. The big screen presentation has much more the feel of a film screening than a live performance in the opera house.

At a massive house like the Met in particular, the sense of distance that is an integral part of the opera experience is compressed by HD. Instead, the direction of the Met's HD broadcasts is much more intimate, with almost claustrophobic obsession with close-ups of the principals. Opera is melodramatic and scaled to be presented at a distance on a large stage. The intimacy that is key to the film experience is alien to the theater-goer's experience in the opera house. Even on a big screen and in HD, the action feels much more in the nature of a televised production on PBS. Especially in a production as large-scaled as Zeffirelli's Turandot at the Met, the intimacy of the obsessive close-ups is jarring.

Opera singers can be, but usually are not, as physically attractive as film or television actors. The physical appearance of opera singers is (or certainly should be) subordinate to their skills as artists. When exposed as the principal singers are at a Met HD broadcast, their physical appeal (or lack of appeal) can detract from the artistic experience. This limitation is no limitation at all for Renee Fleming, for example, but it may have played a part in Deborah Voigt's decision to have weight-reduction surgery, perhaps at the risk of her career (which happily did not occur).

Film is literal and explicit, characteristics that makes it unappealing to this writer. The imagination of the viewer plays only a small role in the film-goer's experience. The director's choices (be they well-considered or mere conceits) define the film. Stage directors, especially in today's opera world, also define the visual aspects of the production, but it can only be done (fortunately in most cases) at a distance. In the opera house the viewer can, but need not, watch the principals at all times. The distance to the stage is so great, and the scale of the production is so vast that there are virtually unlimited visual choices available to the viewer. In HD, the choice of a single visual presentation is made entirely by the director.

The Met HD broadcasts are in "high definition." By its very nature, the exceptionally, even artificially sharp visual definition of HD is distracting. Sonically, the broadcasts feature the worst of digital sound reproduction. The sound is compressed at the source to accommodate the bandwidth required for transmission, then expanded at the venue for presentation. The auditory experience bears little relationship to what is heard in the opera house. Even assuming acoustic correction to mimic the cavernous acoustics of the Met's Lincoln Center auditorium, the balance between orchestra and stage is grossly distorted to emphasize the latter. Furthermore, the acoustics of any live theater vary from section to section. The Met's HD broadcasts sound equally bad everywhere. Digital sound reproduction has the virtue of clarity, but at the expense of warmth and realism. Surround sound in HD sounds much more like the multiplex than the Met's auditorium.

So, bravo to the Met for making its productions available to thousands of opera fans around the world. Surely the HD experience will be improved. But I was only able to last through two acts of a so-so Turandot recently, finally yielding to boredom. I love opera and have seen hundreds of performances over the years. This is one of the few that was so uninvolving that it was not worth a whole evening's investment. If I had been in the audience at the Met, however, surely I would have found much to enjoy. But by all means, try the Met's HD broadcasts for yourself.

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