in: News & Features

February 27, 2011

To the Met: Don’t Ruin a Good Thing

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These Met HD performances are, as I say all the time, like dying and going to Heaven. Yet there is a trend that is increasingly bothering me, and, I am sure, other opera devotees as well. In its zeal to capitalize on the phenomenally successful telecasts of live performances of its operas, the Met management is turning out productions that are increasingly looking like they were made for the movies — and for future viewing on people’s small-screen television sets.

Yesterday’s New York Times (Feb. 26) had a review (by Zachary Woolfe) of the Met’s current Lucia di Lammermoor that treated this issue: “… the Met’s recent productions can seem directed at the camera rather than the audience in the theater.” And yesterday’s performance of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride had an especially egregious example. In the final act, when Iphigénie is musing, the camera was so “in her face” that her face filled almost the entire screen. Not that Susan Graham is not highly attractive, but it was a travesty. And it jarred me out of the mood of the opera by evoking the image of those kissy, close-up scenes that closed movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

And, yes, even chorus singers are forced to grimace, fidget, show emotion in their eyes in every second onstage.  A corollary problem relating to the chorus is that one cannot do one’s own browsing. I have a friend who sings in it, and I rather enjoy trying to find her. But just when the roving camera gets close to a suspect, it maddeningly veers away. As a member of a live audience in the concert hall, I can at least resort to opera glasses.

Not that the video direction should keep to the premise of solely duplicating the opera-goer’s experience; the HD version is actually superior, visually. But we HD viewers do not need a lot of close ups that decide what is important for us to see. The images are sharp enough that for the most part, the proscenium arch should be about as close as we have to get, with occasional closer views at key moments for individual characters.

A third problem has more to do with what opera is being produced. When there is no overture before the opening curtain, we never get to see those superb Met players. Wouldn’t it be possible, from time to time and for a moment, to zero in on, say, an oboe or flute solo? This is not a contradiction of the above suggestion; at the times when staging is preoccupied with being “busy” might be just such an occasion. In halls where players are somewhat visible, it is fun to zero in on soloists.

One experiment on the possibilities of telecasting versus live performance was quickly dropped — the disastrous use of split-screen effects in the early HD production of Tristan in 2008, in which there were upwards of 12 screens or so, if memory serves. I hear tell that audience response was heavily negative. I do hope audiences also ask the Met to respect the essential spirit of opera as a staged production.

Woolfe’s review of Lucia hinted that the paying live theater audience may be taking a back seat to the HD ones. It is not clear how this plays out; the live audience would be none the wiser, it seems, to the flick of an eye or grimace. Most in the audience can hardly make out the details of a face, never mind expressions. But the Met is well advised not to have Woolfe’s “rather than” be construed as such.

The backstage mechanics are fun to watch. And one HD moment I hope is never dropped: “Maestro to the pit. Maestro to the pit, please!”

The message to the Met is strictly on the camera work during the performance. Not that there should be no zoom-ins or close ups; those are among the delights of this HD technology. But please, Met, do not overdo it.

25 Comments

  1. Another jarring example of overdoing a close-up came at the very beginning of the opera. As back-story, Diana was shown flying down to rescue young Iphigenie (a dancer) from the sacrificial altar and carry her up to heaven. The camera angle on this shot destroyed a bit of stage magic, clearly showing Diana clipping Iphigenie to the flight line. I’m sure this subtle move was not visible to the audience in the house.

    I agree that, generally, the HD version is a visual treat. But often the sound seems distant, particularly in contrast with the preview clips and the backstage interviews, which are much more present.

    But overall, I love the HD productions, especially since the Met is no longer touring and I can’t get to Manhattan. It’s wonderful to see these great artists close to home and at a reasonable price.

    Comment by perry — February 27, 2011 at 9:29 pm

  2. “Nixon in China” was, IMO, a perfect example of how not to moviecast an opera. The camera angle was almost unrelentingly from below, looking up at the singers, and there were far too many close-ups. I think they said Peter Sellars himself was directing the telecast. Whoever it was must never again be permitted to direct an HD transmission.

    “Rheingold,” for all the flaws of the production, was well presented in the movie house; and “Don Carlo” was magnificent visually (as well as musically). But “Nixon in China” was handled visually in a way that could easily discourage further trips to the movie theater if such camera angles and preponderance of close-ups become SOP.

    I hope you’re telling the Met (I refuse to type it MET) what you’re telling us.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 27, 2011 at 9:46 pm

  3. What a terrific review!…. it is one that I hoped would be done.
    The MET hd broadcasts are a marvelous way to introduce opera to the novice as well as enrich the lives of long-time opera enthusiasts like myself.

    There have been some incredibly thrilling presentations over the past 3 years and some that were third rate or worse.

    Unfortunately we live in an age where the opera director has total power to exert a tyranical authority over every aspect of the production. Why the MET often hires individuals who have had no experience with opera in any sense of the word is ridiculous. The obsession with “updating” operas to a more contempoary time period serves no valid purpose…nor do silly gimmicks.. the hd performances of Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Orfeo and Don Pasquale for example…

    The camera crew often appears to hyperactive and the results can greatly effect continuity and concentration…..the constant use of closeups particularly of those who are supposed to be 2 to 3 decades younger defies logic. One longs wishes the crowd scenes could be more static.

    The conductor and orchestra do seem to be an afterthought in these broadcasts… the Met is thus stating that overtures, preludes etc. are of no musical or dramatic consequences.

    I too love…“Maestro to the pit. Maestro to the pit, please!”

    Having attended both the “live” hd performances and the repeats, it makes no sense to have 20 minute intermissions during the repeats.

    BRAVA BETTINA!

    Comment by Ed Burke — February 28, 2011 at 12:14 pm

  4. One quibble, Ed.
    The encores a couple of seasons had no intermissions. If you had to answer the call of nature, you missed part of the opera. I’m glad to have the opportunity to walk around for a few minutes between acts.

    Comment by perry — February 28, 2011 at 1:30 pm

  5. Bettina wrote: “Not that the video direction should keep to the premise of solely duplicating the opera-goer’s experience….”

    Sure it shall not but it also shall not destroy the opera “consumption” experience. This is actually a larger problem then the MET’s broadcasts. The whole industry of cinematographic presentation of music events is in a deep trouble and for many years. In fact the industry is not in trouble. We, the hostages of the industry are in trouble.

    We practically do not have classical performances from the last 10-20 years caught on DVD/Tape/BlueRay/LaserDisk or whatever that would present a performing event artistically appropriate. It always during the performance some idiotic ego of Eisenstein-wonna-to-be kicks in and the camera(s) begin to do some absolutely ridicules things. I am saying it not because I know all recent performances but because I have been saying it for years and friends of mind usually tell me: “Take a look at this – THAT is great video-vise”. I do watch what offered and it always not there.

    There is a bigger fish to fry then the overly-playfully hands of video editor. I am talking about their deaf ears. If we were bats or dolphins then it would work differently but because you are humans your hearing evaluate distance as a ratio between direct and reflected sound (I do simplify the things tremendously, as there is a LOT more to it). So, for sake of simplicity: a singer from 10 feet and the same singer from 100 feet would have very different amount of harmonics and reverberations in his/her voice. Unfortunately the video people when they zoom in to a fragment on a stage never implement sonic zooming. As a result we have the same panoramic, ambient and bad acoustically sound of let say MET. Then a camera runs to highlight two singers but the Sound is still as you are sitting in the last row under yoiur chair. This I find is very annoying, not unpleasant but actively annoying. Therefore I prefer to hear MET over WHRB, sitting in my chair, patting my Koshka and bitching out loud if I do not like something.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — February 28, 2011 at 5:12 pm

  6. I saw Iphigénie en Auride at Legacy Place and thought the audio was unimpressive. After all, the principals were fighting colds…In fact, was this really HD video? It certainly didn’t look like the detail of HDTV on my 32″ set. I also recorded the radio stream (Radio Canada’s Espace Musique). I was struck by how much better the radio stream sounded than the HD transmission. I have noticed different video approaches from one opera to another. I enjoyed the approach used for Iphigénie en Auride: Susan Graham holds up very well in close ups!

    Comment by Greg — February 28, 2011 at 10:35 pm

  7. Joe Whipple reminded me of another infelicitous Met camera shot, this one from Nixon in China — Nixon, prone, seen from his feet, Mantegna-like. It worked for Mantegna, but it didn’t for poor Nixon, or, more properly, Jim Maddalena. I hope the Met excises that shot from whatever it prepares for future presentations.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — February 28, 2011 at 10:39 pm

  8. I to enjoy some things about the HD broadcasts.

    But:

    I now anticipate the camera zooming in on the singer.
    I miss seeing the whole stage, and for that reason I have begun going to the Met in NYC to see the operas I want to see as they should be staged; complete theatre.

    I make sure I see the opera before it is broadcast.I want my own ideas.

    Four operas, I think fared not well at all from the camera work.

    Tales of Hoffman closed in on every face and we could not see the action. Olympia was so animated when I saw it in NYC, and our HD audiences missed most of the comedy in her grand aria.

    Rheingold was magic in NYC. Just magic. The Rheinmaidens really came off as mermaids. So much of the magic was lost in closeups.

    Then Boris Godunov. The second scene where Boris is sitting on his throne with the Russian people around him in a dark quiet double rectangle, while Pimen reads the history of the Russian people to Dimitri,the pretender, was the apex of all the theatre stage craft I have ever seen. Spare, simple, even the movements of the Russian people was so subtle so as to give just a hint of the misery in the story. Boris also, moved minimally, just enough to give us the horror of his being.
    I couldn’t wait to see it again. I should have known better. More movement, more acting, so many closeups that the magic of this incredible scene was lost. I was hoping they would repeat this production again with the same cast so I could see it live agin next year, but nope.

    Then Hamlet. Who would have thought that way before intermission I was so tired of seeing Simon Keenleyside’s face that I really didn’t ever want to see him again!!!!
    Sad.

    Then there’s the sound. It’s too loud. Louder than any I have heard in the Met in NYC.
    Not real. For Iphegenie , last week, I had to sit in the back of the theatre because there was no time to take my cello home before the opera. The sound , under the overhang was far pleasanter than when I sit further down.

    I , too love the intermission features and “Maestro to the pit, please.”

    Comment by Leslie Miller — February 28, 2011 at 11:42 pm

  9. The camera work of the new HD broadcasts has been a beef of mine since they began. I saw the cameras in action, zooming up and down and swooping across the apron, in a performance at the house before I saw their product on the screen. My fears were confirmed; there were many shots up-close-and-personal with the singer’s epiglottis, camera angles were steady for only a few seconds before moving or cutting to another camera, at times I thought I’d need a Dramamine for motion sickness! I feel that violates the intent of the opera’s production and sometimes even the intent of the composer and librettist. I would prefer that the experience of sitting in the house with binoculars be the model for the video production. I’d like to see most of the stage most of the time, with occasional closeups of the singers, maybe occasional large changes of angle. There is no need to fill the screen with the singer’s face. Even on the small screen I don’t want to see every pore on the soloist’s nose. And what is with the audio sync? Often on the TV broadcast and sometimes on the theater screen, the sound is not synchronized with the video, which is extremely annoying, especially in the too-closeups.

    Comment by David Bean — March 1, 2011 at 7:49 am

  10. I agree with Gregg that the quality of the video projection does not look HD. It’s fuzzy compared to my home 1080p set, the highlights are blown and the black levels are very weak. Nevetheless, I’m happy that it’s available.

    I also agree with Romy that the sound perspective should change with the distance of the shot, but that would unfortunately require body mikes to give the correct perspective in closeups.

    Finally, I have also found the sound in the theater to be much louder than the sound at the opera house.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 1, 2011 at 8:52 am

  11. It is great that it was mentioned that Sound sometimes is no synchronized with video. Wait until you buy some German ballet – they allow to desynchronize video and audio up to 5 seconds – watching that ballet is like watching Armstrong waking on Moon surface…

    I do not particularly feel that it is loud; rather it is compressed as bad quality sound, which makes it to feel that it was loud.

    There is another subject that is a bit less popular – high resolution close up makes disservice from metaphorical perspective. An operatic character is a character and it lives mostly in perception. Some kind of Tatiana from Onegin is a young girl and she lives in awareness as a young girl. The HD close-up suddenly reveals her to be a senor woman with big cheeks, varicose Veins and her set of the normal human problems. The point is that extreme close up is a way too intensive for actors and not truly necessary, and in some cased destructive, for opera goers.

    In my view the best MET cinematography in MET was done a few years back during “The Magic Flute” film. It was Julie Taymor production with James Levane leading MET and English singing. It was in way a Broadway-level singling but the camera work was absolute perfect match to what was going on at the stage. It was a great film!

    Comment by Romy The Cat — March 1, 2011 at 10:53 am

  12. As a regular listener/viewer of MET HD opera in Boston (Fenway 13), I find the sound flat and always disappointing — far worse than listening on a decent radio at home. No matter what the production, the experience in house, even in a cheap, remote seat with strong binoculars, trumps the HD. The choice of productions is also a disappointment — no HD this year for PELLEAS ET MELISANDE, WOZZECK, QUEEN OF SPADES, SIMON BOCCANEGRA (with a baritone) — all solid productions with very strong top-down casting. At least there was DON CARLO and NIXON. Next year is similar — no KHOVANSHCHINA, no MAKROPOULOS CASE…..

    Comment by ipomoea — March 1, 2011 at 7:21 pm

  13. Are the peevish and negative the only folks who comment? I find the Opera-casts I have seen to be wonderful. They are not meant to be the same as sitting in a theater. They are much better as far as I am concerned, especially since I rarely feel I can pay for good seats! Come on, folks, how about just letting the experience happen and sitting back and enjoying it for its own sake. Opera of this quality for 20 bucks is hard to beat.

    Comment by Karin Tate — March 8, 2011 at 5:55 pm

  14. The “Live from the MET” hd performance of Boris on October 23, 2010 was shown on WGBH-TV on 02/20/2011. The cast was excellent and Rene Pape’s Boris was one of the greatest operatic performances ever…AND fortunately during his one big scene and monologue, the camera crew behaved.
    I believe one can purchase the DVD now from various online places like Archiv Music, Amazon, B+N or Borders and the Met Opera Shoppe.

    BTW after a delay of several months, Boris is being given several performances currently at the Met with the same cast except for the last 2 without Pape. Unfortunately the great Gergiev had to cancel his conducting engagements due to sheer exhaustion. Commuting between NYC and Russian 2 or 3 times per week takes a terrible toll!

    Comment by Ed Burke — March 20, 2011 at 10:55 pm

  15. Unfortunately I did not see the fall’s Boris on WGBH-TV but the FM broadcast we had a couple weeks back was very bad, very bad. The singing was kind of bogus at time and the orchestra did not play Mussorgsky but rather some kind of melt of Berlioz, Gershwin, Emmerich Kalman and Lloyd Webber. With all my lack of admiration to Gergiev I have to admit that if he had a change to prepare the MET then it would be a whole different Boris all together. Let wait for another 10 years when MET return to Boris production again, in my view this one they slipped.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — March 21, 2011 at 10:41 am

  16. Did anybody see “Lucia” on Saturday? Did they have too many close-ups? I was planning to go but got too busy.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 21, 2011 at 11:59 am

  17. They did.
    Poor Natalie Dessay. There she lay prostrate in the arms of some of her wedding guests, while applause justifiably continued for quite a while, and then the camera caught her eyelashes quiver. REALLY! You could almost read her mind: happiness that the audience loved what she thinks may be her final Lucia, and tension over whether she could hold the coma until offstage.

    There were others, too, but that one really broke the spell.

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — March 21, 2011 at 2:46 pm

  18. I generally attend the “ENCORE” performances because, being very familiar with most of the operas, the cast is my primary interest thus I listen to the radio broadcast first and if I enjoy it, then attend the encore. The “Trovatore” was so wonderful that I’ll be @ the encore HD on Wednesday May 18th.

    Yesterday’s “Die Walkure” radio broadcast was such an overwhelming experience in every way that I can’t wait for the encore HD performance on June 1st.

    I urge people who love opera to go to these encore HD performances which are generally poorly
    attended.

    The MET has just announced a series of Summer encore HD performances….check the website
    metopera.org and click on “Watch and Listen”.

    Comment by Ed Burke — May 15, 2011 at 5:55 pm

  19. Good for you, Ed Burke!

    Yes, wasn’t that performance overwhelming? Every singer superb. And wasn’t it heartening to see James Levine in good form? I intend to take my grandchildren to the encore. One problem for me: that #*%@ love motif has been running in my mind non-stop since yesterday afternoon. I suppose it’s better than Ravel’s Bolero.

    A bonus at the broadcast yesterday was the glimpse of the forthcoming video on Levine. One can understand why musicians love him and the results are so wonderful for us, the audience.

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — May 15, 2011 at 8:51 pm

  20. Did anybody go to “Il Trovatore” last month. If so, did they give too many extreme close-ups again?

    I’m asking because I’m planning to go to the replay on Wednesday, and I figure the close-ups will be easier to take if I know they’re coming.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — May 16, 2011 at 12:44 pm

  21. There were some close-ups but I do not remember any that were as extreme as those cited above.
    Also, I just called the MET to alert them to this discussion.

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — May 16, 2011 at 1:20 pm

  22. Good for you!

    Comment by Joe Whipple — May 16, 2011 at 9:15 pm

  23. The camera work on Capriccio was a welcome relief. Of course it’s not a big spectacle opera, so the choices are easier. That was also an overwhelming experience!

    FYI, Burlington has a second encore on Thursday afternoons at 1pm, if anyone doesn’t want to be out until midnight for Walkyrie.

    Comment by perry41 — May 17, 2011 at 10:12 am

  24. The Trovatore visuals were pretty good — moderate use of close-up, as well as sufficient mid-range and full stage views.

    My only real problem was that the volume level was too high (which is often the case in movie theaters). The singing would have been more enjoyable if it hadn’t been so overpoweringly loud. But maybe the problem was that in the next row to the back I was too near the speakers. At earlier Met transmissions, I was near the front and didn’t think the voices were too loud.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — May 19, 2011 at 11:59 pm

  25. I must add that there was, IMO, a fine bit of acting at the end of the opera. After delivering the line, “Sei vendicata, o madre!” Dolora Zajik showed a facial expression that was not triumphant, but grief-stricken, as she realizes the implication of that revenge.

    I don’t know how visible it was in the house, but thanks to the close-up at that moment it was clearly visible in the movie theater. Close-ups certainly have their place if they aren’t overdone.

    Even now, the thought of the profound grief portrayed at that tragic moment brings tears to my eyes.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — May 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm

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