In the video, he’s plugging England’s Glyndebourne Festival – not just at the theatre in bucolic Sussex, but also the festival’s broadcasts, which can be seen in cinemas and online. In his view, this is “exactly what opera should be.” Unfortunately, I don’t share his enthusiasm for opera in non-live contexts.
But to say that opera on the big screen, or the small screen, is “exactly what opera should be” strikes me as a tad perverse. For me, nothing can replace the shared experience of sitting in a theatre with other live human beings, hearing other live human beings on stage and in the pit. It’s communal. It builds what sociologists call “social capital.” And it’s been an intrinsic part of the operatic experience for more than 400 years. (Just ask Claudio Monteverdi.)
Of course, electronically delivered opera also has a noble history, beginning, in North America, in 1931 with the the first Met radio broadcast. I’m too young to remember that – but can remember Joan Baillie, the Canadian Opera Company’s first archivist, telling me that listening to the Met on CBC radio was de rigueur when she was growing up. She contended that the broadcasts created a whole generation of opera fans before live opera was readily accessible in remote places like Toronto.
Perhaps I too would think opera on radio was just fine, if the real thing lay beyond my grasp. Fortunately, it doesn’t – and so I’ve never been a fan of opera on radio, CDs, DVDs or streamed to my computer screen. And even with all of the splendour and glory the Met can throw at its HD broadcasts, whenever I see them I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m getting a second-best experience. In fact, I rarely attend Met opera broadcasts in cinemas – only if something rare and special is being presented that I feel I must see.
I’m not trying to sound an alarm here: I don’t see electronically presented opera as any threat to the continued prosperity and proliferation of live opera. Three years ago, Opera America released a study of the effect of Met HD broadcasts, and discovered that most attendees in cinemas “realize that HD doesn’t replace live opera.” (You can read the survey here.) That’s a relief!
If some people want to watch opera in cinemas, or home in their pajamas, that’s their business, I suppose. But for me, such an experience is “exactly what opera shouldn’t be.”
© Colin Eatock 2011