A View from the Couch
Last Friday WGBY, our local public television station, broadcast the Metropolitan Opera's new pastiche opera Enchanted Island. I had seen this performance as part of the Met's Live in HD broadcasts to local movie theatres, but it was interesting to see it again from the comfort of my living room couch. And it added another dimension to my recent blog comparing operas in movie theatres to live performances at the Met itself.
The big screen experience isn’t the same as being in the house yourself, but it is still absorbing and involving, similar to the experience we have had in movie houses all our lives, There is a suspension of disbelief, and the fact that one is watching and listening to a live performance means that anything can happen, whether it’s a missed note or a magical moment, and it provides very similar thrills. The room erupts in applause, cheers and laughter just as if the performers could hear us expressing our appreciation. I recently attended my first “encore” performance, part of the Met’s encores of its new Ring Cycle productions. The audience was smaller, and I had seen the original broadcast, but it was just as absorbing as the first time around. But it still wasn’t the same as being in the house; we didn’t have the direct sound of the voices and instruments or the single point of view of a seat at the Met.
The small screen takes us another step away from the original. It’s harder to imagine oneself in New York in a darkened auditorium while in a dimly lit living room. And our television speakers are no match for those in the cinema or the actual ambience of the Met. Our TV is far from home theatre size, but it’s decently large, and we enjoy films and even operas on DVD. And it’s nice to have snacks, drinks and the bathroom close at hand, especially as Enchanted Island aired without intermission features.
Those intermission features add immeasurably to both radio and HD broadcasts. The host tells a little about the opera (much more on radio than HD), there are interviews with the principal singers and sometimes conductors. In HD broadcasts, we can watch sets being changed and learn about technical aspects of the performance, but we miss out on the opera quiz, a favorite moment in radio. At our recent visit to the Met for the matinee performance of Die Walküre, my wife and I used the first intermission to scout out the location of the studio where the quiz takes place, and at the second took advantage of our aisle seats to head out even before the second act bows concluded to be among the 150 people who can be in the audience. The guest for that day was Jay Hunter Morris, the tenor who made an exciting debut as Siegfried this year.
Saturday afternoon I returned home to find that my wife, who had been listening to WFCR’s broadcast of Lucia di Lammermoor, had also been surfing some other opera sites when she came across a live stream of Bellini’s I Capuletti e i Montecchi, a service of Bavarian State Opera. Lucia we have seen; Capuletti not; so she turned off the radio to watch. Our desktop computer is nearly 10 years old and videos tend to be fairly jerky, so I put the laptop on the dining room table, where indeed the streaming came through smoothly. But the laptop’s internal speakers are no match for the external ones on the desktop (themselves a step down from the radio). Here we have another remove – a very small screen and tinny speakers – but still a connection to the opera house where we saw and heard the same work as those in the audience in Munich. To take things one step further, at the Bavarian State Opera you can watch features about their other productions, including a Ring Cycle. Many other opera company sites offer similar features and sometimes live streams. For a small fee ($4 for a single opera, $15 a month or $150 a year) Met Opera on Demand lets you access a large archive of audio and video opera performances. They are even available as an iPad app, so you never have to take another subway ride or walk in the woods without being able to watch an opera.
To return to Enchanted Island: it’s a very charming amusement, with fabulous music taken from some of he best composers of the baroque and a story that borrows heavily from Shakespeare. The singers are terrific, especially Joyce diDonato, Luca Pisaroni, Danielle de Niesse and David Daniels, and Plácido Domingo has a particularly spectacular entrance. But it’s part of the Great Performances series which begins at 9:00 PM, so I’m afraid that I wasn’t able to watch to the end (though I had seen it before and knew it would end well). Still, I hope that WGBY and other public television stations should broadcast more of these delights. If you agree, I hope you will give your financial support to your public tv station, along with your contributions to public radio.
Addendum: Click here to read Joel Cohen's blog about Enchanted Island. Cohen is Music Director Emeritus of Boston Camerata, one of America's best early music ensembles.
Photo: David Daniels as Prospero and Joyce DiDonato as Sycorax in the Metropolitan Opera's Enchanted Island.