The home of opera is theater. Opera was born in small, elite court theaters. Then it grew up, changed, evolved, became a popular show, so it was hosted in larger and larger houses, ending up occupying even open air arenas, capable of hosting thousands and thousands of people. But all these places have something in common. First, they put some distance between the audience and the stage. Second, they grant the audience, in every moment, a whole, total visual of the stage.
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Then, the cinema came. And, later on, television. And both affected our way of enjoying opera. Obviously, the invention of the gramophone (and all its more and more sophisticated “children”) and the possibility of recording images as well as sound, opened up the world of opera to an enormous number of people which hadn’t previously had the opportunity to enjoy it in a theater. Whole generations of audiences have come to love opera through recordings, listening and dreaming without seeing… but at liberty to create in their minds their own sceneries. Cinema and video recording were the further step. A progress, of course, but maybe not entirely free from dangers.
Nowadays, and more so in these times (hopefully short…) of “shutdown” due to COVID-19, which especially affect all kinds of live performances, we watch a lot of opera on TV. But THE question is: when we watch opera on TV, do we see the same performance we could have enjoyed from a seat (any seat, even if we do know that the perspective may be very different from place to place) in an opera house?
Well, unfortunately the answer is NO. For a number reasons (which we will try to analyze or hypothesise) mostly we just see what the TV director chooses to show, usually from a number of frames put at his/her disposal by two or more cameras.
“There’s a hole in the
bucket ceiling, dear Liza”
Of course, we hope that each time this person is an opera expert, who knows what he/she is doing. But how many times have you wondered? How many times have you resented being shown some useless element of the scenery or some other stupid detail, whilist missing the important action progressing on stage?
Recently, this habit has reached its very extreme, even resorting to frames from above… as if someone was peeping from a hole in the ceiling. A point of view no opera-goer has ever had, or needed, or desired. In the same way none of them has probably felt the need of typical movie “tricks”, like fadings or overlaps of frames.
Yes, there is more: the growing addiction of TV directors to close-ups.
Close-ups are obviously born with cinema. But how, and how much do they help opera? TV directors, maybe more proficient in cinema that in opera, seem alas to think: “We can do close-ups, so let’s do close-ups” . But, as we have said, the essence of opera is not only in its panoramic scope on the stage, but also in being enjoyed from a certain distance. And there are reasons for that. Historical and traditional reasons, of course, but also practical ones.
Opera is mainly made of music and singing. Singing opera is not an easy task, it may be hard and tiring, even for the best and more professional singers. It obviously requires an effort far greater than merely speaking. So, do not singers have the right not to have their effort over-exposed? And can’t audiences better enjoy a performance without seeing it?
The main job is to sing
True, there are some very great and very precious singers who can face a close-up and still be enjoyable to see, like a movie actor. But it is something we cannot demand from everyone, since their main job is to sing. Some singers are good actors, some are not. Some singers are young, tall, slender, beautiful/handsome people. Good for them… and for us. But some are not, and that is no one’s fault, and hopefully it will not be a drawback to their singing.
The acting of Vittorio Grigolo
Some singers actually can sing and act at the same time. Wonderful. That is a plus, a golden one. But it cannot be a must. Some just sing, and if they sing well that is what they are there to do.
Blank stares and strange faces
Unfortunately, close-ups sometimes just show blank stares, or too frequent, uneasy glances to the conductor, even in some of the more emotional and passionate moments of the performance. Sometimes they even show strange faces and visible effort, and seeing them up close is not only useless, it is unpleasant for the watcher, not to mention unkind to the singer.
A TV director should have the ability and common sense to give the audience a performance as enjoyable as the one they could have seen in an opera house. Why do a lot of them provide exactly the opposite?
Chosen for their looks
Probably, they think that’s what today’s audience, grown up with cinema and television, wants and expects. But that might have another serious consequence: the danger that singers might be chosen not for their ability to sing, but for the way they look. And so, young audiences would have less and less knowledge and understanding of what opera really is and means.
Of course, “modern” stagings have their share of responsibility in this trend. If a director feels the need to stage Rigoletto with the Duke’s full strip-tease (we have had to see that, too, unfortunately), of course he will choose a handsome, athletic tenor, even if some other, less good-looking one might sing a lot better. But this is another issue, and we might come back to it some time in the future.
In the meantime, let’s hope opera houses can soon safely reopen! Opera on video might be a useful pastime, but “real” opera… that’s THE joy!