Thursday, September 23, 2010


It's probably snobby of me to say this, but the theater projections of live performances of opera and theater which are the latest thing, miss their mark. This judgment may be precipitate: all I've seen is two of the Met in HD ("Doctor Atomic" and "Carmen") and the London National Theatre's inaugural broadcast (Racine's "Phèdre," with Helen Mirren in the title part), which was just rescreened this evening - all rebroadcasts. But these, at least, had the same shortcomings, and make me wonder at the whole enterprise - though curious about another approach.

What all three had in common was what any self-respecting film will nowadays have - multiple camera angles including wide-angles from the corners of the stage and closeups of performers, and the occasional shots where cameras move horizontally or vertically to follow an action or show a novel perspective. This allowed the audience to see things which only select members of a real audience could. But at what cost?

I'd assumed, when the Met in HD series was inaugurated, that the intention was to recreate the experience of being in the opera house, but something entirely different is going on. Since the camera has no fixed point of view, the viewer is in no fixed relation to the stage. She's everywhere and nowhere. And since most scenes are close-ups rather than images of the whole stage, there's no possibility that the film viewer could feel she was is in the same space as the performers. The NT production at least had the curtain call at the end, but the Met productions edit out the audience completely - no applause, even. The performance is in a void, not even aimed in any particular direction. The director's, set designer's and performer's orientations are scuttled. For instance, the stunning (if ultimately wearisome) screen which dominated "Doctor Atomic" below (a picture from the house, not the film), was never once shown from head-on as it was meant to be seen.

While visually pretty interesting, the film versions cut up what should be experienced as a Gesamtkunstwerk - a total work of art, I realized on watching the films, that includes the space of the performance hall, the air breathed by performers and audience alike, the space which both audience and performers strive to traverse with gazes and sounds.

I saw "Doctor Atomic" from the Family Circle, and was keen to compare the Met in HD version as the original had seemed insufficiently operatic - the director was a film director who'd never done opera before, and who seemed to me unable to fill the stage, used as she was as a film maker to being able to simply turn the camera from one scene to another. But seeing it now as a film I realized that the opera's power such as it was was that of opera, of a single overpowering whole which challenges and embraces you. The film version bungled the two main coups de théâtre of the production: the appearance of that row of life-sized kachina figures at the top of the screen, emerging ever so slowly from the dark in a place which had earlier contained something else, and, earlier in the opera, the lowering into the center of the space of the stage of the bomb. Hanging there, mute and threatening, its true power unknown by any of the characters on the stage, it took over the whole space of the Metropolitan Opera House, in an utterly terrifying way. And it just stayed there, mutely threatening, the sense of ominousness building and building. In the film version, we actually looked up with a camera to see it lowered by a boom from rafter full of lights, etc.; obviously a prop, it then disappeared from view except for brief cuts to closeups. No deal.

And in tonight's "Phèdre," something analogous. As the smitten Phèdre writhes in anguish at her impossible love for her stepson, members of our movie audience giggled. Giggled! They would never have dared if in a space with actual actors. Indeed, the very lines which elicited the nervous giggles were among the play's most powerful - in some cases precisely because they were slightly ridiculous. That's the extent of her tragic derangement. That's part of the pity and horror. I realized that it only works if the actor suffering before you makes it impossible for you to look away, to think "it's only art" with relief or pleasure or disappointment. Film can generate immediacy of its own, no doubt. But the immediacy of live performance is different, and gets lost in the translation to film. I was reminded of Grotowski's manifestos for a "poor theater," a theater does what only it can do. For him it's all about the reality of the performers' bodies, and their pain - not feigned but real. Only being made witness to that can the viewer be affected in a real way by the performance.

But I don't want to conclude that there's no way of sharing live performance with remote audiences. What if, instead of trying to make it satisfying the way films are (changes in angle, scale, etc., and available in a non-space for viewers to imaginatively enter), the experience of the actual audience member were recreated: a fixed view (from the best seat in the house, of course), but in sufficient detail (HD!) that the viewer could focus on particular scenes and performers, as one naturally does. (The eye, as we know, bounces around scenes it surveys, all the time.) Instead of 3D glasses the audience coud be given disposable opera glasses! If you were surrounded by other viewers in a similar relationship to the performance - seated next to and behind you and in front of you in the movie theater - and knew the broadcast to be live, you just might get some sense of participation in the spectacle, of sharing that space and that time with these performers. Very old fashioned, I know. But I suspect it might work. Only for those who've had the good fortune to taste the genuine article? Perhaps, but maybe not. It's worth a try. For the three-dimensional experience of live staged performance, the audience needs to feel part of the same space as the performance.

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