The New York Times ran a piece in this past Sunday’s Arts/Music section about The Metropolitan Opera’s recent program of transmitting live performances on the Met stage to cineplex theaters across the nation and around the world. This program has been widely successful in theaters, with hundreds of thousands seeing either the live performance or a re-run of the broadcast.

I personally love the idea.

However, there are some problems. To quote the NYTimes:

Yet despite the general acclaim for the Met’s innovation, introduced and championed by its general manager, Peter Gelb, a few voices have raised concerns about long-term effects on the art form.

The dissenters say that the movement will lead to more conservative programming; that the voice will become subservient to appearance; that listeners will be trained to hear something electronic and lose an appreciation for a live experience.

What caught my eye in the above quote was “…more conservative programming.” (my italics) Now, I’m not sure how the author of the story, Daniel J. Wakin, meant “more conservative”, but I can read the sentence in a few ways:

  • Opera houses will program more “warhorses”–that is, the only operas we’ll be able to see will be well-established, tried-and-true money makers; or
  • Opera houses will program only “safe” and uncontroversial operas; or
  • Opera houses will program operas that are musically conservative.

I’m sure there a few more ways to parse the word “conservative,” but I don’t think it really matters exactly which meaning Wakin intends, because all of them readily apply to most opera houses in America today.

More conservative?

Heaven help me. The cost of producing new operas is astounding. The financial risk is even more frightening. It’s hard for me to believe that the medium will break out of its conservative ways any time soon.

I have no proof but my gut feelings, but I think that taking opera out of the opera houses, which in America are seen as the epitome of stuffy, snooty, elitist artforms may actually open the medium up to be appreciated by the masses. There is a real concern that moving operas to the screen will place pressure to cast looks over vocal quality, but, frankly, that concern doesn’t impress me too much. Opera is supposed to be a visual as well as aural medium. Making the music the only concern in the production ignores the fact that the lyrics sometimes are in complete dissonance to what is actually happening on the stage. Large, older women are the sung about as young, thin things. Watching a 200 lb. woman sing about wasting away from consumption is just weird to me.

I’m willing to sacrifice a bit of musical quality for a more cohesive dramatic experience. If listeners only want a perfectly sung/played opera, then let them support concert performances of those works. Somehow, I don’t think those productions will make much money.

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