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Have live opera broadcasts changed the art form?

Previously, we wrote an article about opera in the movies. But what about when the opera IS the movie? Yes, we’re talking about those visually stunning, hyper-produced Live Opera Broadcasts from The Met. Viewed “live” in the local cinema—or even the re-broadcasts in the comfort of your own home—they are definitely a spectacle to behold.

So why are some people less than fond of them? Opera critics can become particularly outspoken when posed this question. Perhaps we can break down their concerns into two general categories; the altered experience of the sound, and the overly-cinematic visuals.

Regarding the sound, the grievance is usually related to the voices being “too even,” and lacking the natural nuances of a live voice that’s heard without amplification, filtering, or a deliberate balancing. As their argument goes, there’s a homogenization of the singers, regardless of their vocal power or physical position on the stage relative to the orchestra, other singers, and the audience.

As for the visual elements, often the opposite is true—the optical experience on the big screen is more exaggerated than it is in an opera house. The close-ups and quick cuts can make it feel a bit too “in your face,” more like an MTV music video production, compared to the in-theater experience. Or something closer a Hollywood Blockbuster in IMAX-3D than an intimate stage performance.

 Live Opera Broadcasts at home
Live Opera Broadcasts in your 21st Century Home Theater. So what about the fate of cinemas?

Live Opera Broadcasts

For better or worse, directors (whether consciously or unconsciously) now pander more to the camera than the live audience for these particular productions. The lens makes you see what it wants you to see, eliminating the spontaneity of something in the corner of the stage catching your attention. You are now a passive observer rather than an active participant—or so goes their argument.

Obviously, some performers are better suited for live stage acting, while others possess the more subtle gestures required in the up-close cinema format. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that these factors now weigh on casting decisions, as well. Do you choose the lead performer who sounds best in the house, or the one that can deliver emotion with a twinkle of the eye or a quiver of the lip when the camera zooms in?

And what of set design? It isn’t hard to imagine that separate criteria would apply if the director is more concerned with the live audience or the HD cameras. Can fully-produced films be far off where the director yells “Action!” and “Cut!” and the scenes are later spliced together in a studio by a talented film editor on loan from Universal or MGM? If your soprano is having a bad day, no problem, just record the tenor’s part today and mix it with the soprano’s portion of the duet later in the week.

We are in the cinematic age where movie theater-quality optical resolution and Dolby surround sound are even available in our homes at an affordable price. Furthermore, virtual reality games, augmented video feeds on our smartphones, and 360-degree photography have increased our appetites for wild visual effects and audio perfection.

Fortunately, no, there is still something quite magical about the transformative power of a live performance, where you sit in your seat for a unique event, never again to be recreated in exactly the same way. You share this experience with other human beings, both in the audience and on the stage, and that’s a sensation that the camera could never capture.

It is the same for a sporting event, isn’t it? There are many that would never watch a baseball game on television. But sitting in the bleachers on a sunny day with a hot dog and cold beer in hand; the energy of that environment is wonderful entertainment on its own, if you’re a sports fan or not. It’s the totality of all your senses that goes beyond merely watching and listening.

And finally, what about the satisfaction of applauding an outstanding performance if the singers don’t even know that you’re cheering for them? Might as well stay home and see what’s on Netflix.

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