High Def Lulu: Walmart Opera?

An irritated blast I sent to Facebook is the basis for this commentary (I don’t think it’s fair to call it a review), which is really more a series of speculative questions than answers.

At one point in Saturday Nov 21st’s High Definition Metropolitan Opera Broadcast, the transmission died.

Screen blank..!  just a faint wash visible.

No sound..! until i heard  a few people muttering.

I grabbed my iPhone and posted the first thing that came to mind. There had already been some conversation that included James Jorden, Ambur Braid, Ramona Carmelly, Stephen Farrow & other assorted friends & acquaintances (and yes this is shameless name dropping). I’d joked that while I was at a theatre in Scarborough (where I live btw, even if some don’t think much of the place, calling it “Scarberia” and worse), it was empty!

But at this point I posted

And right now we have SILENCE in this theatre. You get what you pay for.

High def = Walmart opera

We lost three minutes or so before the transmission came back, in medias res. If the delay had been longer I would have been more upset, but even so, this seemed reasonable at the price.

Let’s talk $ and the morality of saving money.  If I am all that matters, perhaps i can justify shopping for the cheapest option.  But I am not all that matters surely.

I never ever go to Walmart. I may have been there once, perhaps a decade or more ago, but I avoid those stores on principle. Yes I pay more by shopping at a store with higher prices, but I believe that keeps Canadians employed.

If you follow the analogy i wonder: could Canadian culture even exist if we were to contract everything out, producing all products abroad?  I am still breathing huge sighs of relief over our federal election, one with several subtexts including threats to the CBC due to funding cuts.  I’m hoping that we’ve dodged that bullet.  There are jobs for our actors, writers, technicians, musicians… or anyone else in the supply chain, because there are still productions Made in Canada. They compete with Hollywood, and thank goodness we have rules about Canadian content.

Composer Adam Scime, whose opera L'homme et le ciel will premiere in early December with FAWN Opera

Composer Adam Scime, whose opera L’homme et le ciel will premiere in early December with FAWN Opera

I can’t help thinking about the High-Def broadcasts in the same context.  Now of course, I’m a hypocrite if I decry Walmart while I go to High-Def broadcasts. I pay $28 to the Cineplex to see an opera, rather than support Bill Shookhoff or Guilermo Silva-Marin or AtG or FAWN or the COC or OA or the Canadian producers currently producing new opera such as CanStage/Soundstreams or Tapestry Opera ?

The fact is I am feeling a bit guilty because I chose the Cineplex Lulu over a downtown Prince Igor to be presented by Opera in Concert tomorrow afternoon: because I could only manage one this weekend, and chose the foreign product over the domestic.  It’s simplistic of course, because no single purchase decision is going to damn or save an industry. I can’t help reflecting on this for a few reasons:

  • Because this is my first High-Def broadcast in a long time…
  • Because I am noticing simultaneously, strengths (cheap price, close-up views, great performances) and weaknesses (irritating aspects such as the interviews with the singers, or the outrageous claims: “Only at the Met” they say. Excuse me?)

William Kentridge’s production team created a Lulu that screams out every moment “you’re missing half of the show, you need to come to the theatre to see this properly!”Almost every production in the High-def series teases you somewhat with what you see and what you can’t see, but I don’t believe I’ve ever felt it so keenly as this time, a design that employs a powerful stage picture comprised of illustrations, projected text, mime performers and complex effects framing the live performers, like a bad dream after reading too much Brecht. I don’t believe we had an accurate view of the production for even one moment out of the 3+ hours.

The stars of the production, especially Marlis Petersen, Johan Reuter, and Susan Graham, were especially powerful in closeups that omit the remainder of the stage picture. One can’t have it both ways, but in the relentless pursuit of the ideal close-up, we often were force-fed a paraphrase, an interpretation of what was actually happening on the stage. Chances are this is by now something the artists in question have accepted, possibly because they have no choice, possibly because I’m being too much of a purist.  I’m still pulsing with the emotions of the concluding scene, mostly presented in exquisite close-up of those three principals, even though the last thing we saw ripped us away, giving us a very sloppy full-screen shot that only makes sense if you’ve seen the show before. In the Cineplex one can’t really feel the power of the live human voice, the way it hits you when you’re within the same actual air-mass. Petersen, Reuter, Graham et al only moved me via proxy today, amplified and not really within the same space. The authentic experience of those voices (two of whom I’ve experienced live & in person) is perhaps a purist concern, when the virtual performance is so good.

Is this the future of music, theatre and opera? That is: will other companies follow this path? I know some have tried, including our own Stratford Shakespeare festival but I doubt there’s enough demand for this model to work for smaller companies. Could the National Ballet sell their Nutcracker for an audience beyond Toronto? Could the COC offer their own high-def Christmas treat comparable to what the Metropolitan Opera will offer in December (when they re-broadcast The Magic Flute)?  Whether they do their own Flute or perhaps Hansel and Gretel, there’s surely an audience out there. But I don’t think it has to be either-or, so much as a combination of channels / outlets whereby a content producer earns their revenues.

I am impatient to see another Lulu produced here in Toronto by the COC, or failing that by some other courageous producer; for instance, what about the Toronto Symphony, who have already brought Barbara Hannigan to town a couple of times? I must sound greedy, considering how many ambitious smaller companies are courageously carrying the ball for new & daring opera productions.

And then again I may have to content myself with seeing the Encore.

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