We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, September 12, 2015


Outdoor HD Festival on Lincoln Center Plaza

We are often asked which is better, live opera or HD. We believe they are two different art forms.  Neither is superior.  They are just different. Nowhere is this made clearer than at the Metropolitan Opera Summer HD Festival which we attend every year. We try to see as many as possible to see what additional experiences are provided by this relatively new art form--an art form that has become increasingly popular in theaters across the country.  We will not get into the debate on whether it brings new audiences to opera or steals audiences from the opera house. We see the two forms as complementary.

The HD experience has input from the HD Director who tries to show you the most important visual of any given moment. Perhaps it is a close-up of a singer's face, or perhaps a close-up of the the reaction of the character to whom, or about whom, the singer is singing.  Perhaps it is a closeup of a set element or prop that could not be seen or understood by an audience member beyond the first row--a passed note, something dropped, or something being hidden.

Sometimes it is just an artistic vision of the HD Director.  A good example of this is Gary Halvorson's direction of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette  Mr. Halvorson's artistry lay in highlighting the visual metaphors of Johannes Leiacker's stunning set design. Elements of the astrological calendar, not very visible in the house, remind us that the lovers are "star-cross'd.", especially when he shows us an aerial view.

Additionally, the close-ups of the masks are incredibly beautiful, lending authenticity to the masked ball. So much labor must have gone into designing and executing the designs of those masks--details not even appreciated with opera glasses. The nuptial bed suspended high above the stage in-house seemed risky to the singers; on film it lent enchantment to the concept of lovers floating above the real world.

In Mr. Halvorson's Gianni Schicchi we loved the details of a wealthy Florentine home, details which cannot be taken in all at once in house. The expressions of the greedy family members were priceless, especially those of Stephanie Blythe.

Costume details are thrown into focus as well, as in Mr. Halvorson's loving attention to Michael Yeargan's period-accurate and lavish costumes for Cosi fan tutte. We even got to understand and apppreciate the women's undergarments.

HD Director Barbara Willis Sweete focused on the obscurely lit compartments of Christopher Oram's depressing Joseph Cornell box-like set for Don Giovanni--images that could not be made out in-house. In her direction of Les Contes d'Hoffman, Michael Yeargan's overly busy set design could be best appreciated in various focused close-ups.

Not every opera benefitted from close-ups. As beautiful as Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna looked in R&J, that's how unappealing Mr. Alagna, Olga Borodina and Liudmyla Monastyrska looked in the closing night Aida.  Perhaps it was just the make-up but it detracted rather than added to the performance. Alexei Ratmansky's choreography looked downright silly.

In La Traviata, the visuals were even more striking. But if you objected to Willy Decker's cold modern production (as I do), it appeared even colder on HD. In Act II it seemed as if the Prince of Chintz had upholstered not only the furniture but also Ms. Dessay and Mr. Polenzani. It was the first time we did not break into tears at the end.

Adrian Noble's production of Macbeth also failed to lend itself to this art form. Watching Ms. Netrebko rolling around on the floor of a cold Scottish castle made us feel terribly uncomfortable; the modern dress robbed the story of its power and watching a bunch of mid- 20th c. housewives as witches seemed particularly offensive. And closeups of children vomiting were egregiously unnecessary.

To summarize, HD emphasizes visuals over auditory input. If this emphasis sheds light on the story or  adds to the emotional impact, then HD has done a good job. If it shows us the adorable Susanna Phillips and Isabel Leonard as two stylish sisters, it has added to our appreciation. If the singers happen to be physically attractive so much the better. If the sets and costumes are detailed and authentic, it enhances our involvement.

But if the singers can't act, or don't look the part they are playing, or if the sets are barren and post-moodern, we would prefer not to see them.

Obviously, recorded sound can never give you the auditory thrill of hearing an opera live. That is the price one pays for all the afore-mentioned benefits.

We will close with a formula that works for us. First, see the HD to learn if you like the opera and the production and to relate to the story. Then listen to a good recording to learn the music. Finally, go see the production live and lose yourself in the music, hearing it as it can only sound in the opera house. Then you will have a complete experience.

© meche kroop


  1. Absolutely. These are two complementary art forms and I enjoy and appreciate both.

  2. I do like the up close details you miss in the house, but there's nothing like attending a live performance, feeling the electric in the air, the support the audience gives the artist and what the artist gives in return. I've also seen when productions are made for sale on DVD, vocals may have been edited since the original broadcast as was the case with a Turandot with Placido Domingo, Leona Mitchell and Eva Marton.

  3. Your piece makes a strong point about the importance of the HD director. The best HD/DVDs occur when the two directors work together. An excellent example is Claus Guth's recent Fidelio (Salzburg festival). Good reason to call it Guth's Fidelio rather than Beethoven's but that is a different subject. I do enjoy both. I can not afford more than a handful of live performances each year. The Met Live in HD and similar broadcasts from Europe feed my appetite for opera. I certainly don't see fewer live performances, but then I don't live near the Met (west coast). I am attending 3 performances this year. I would attend more out of curiosity if I were closer.
    I find that I am able to become somewhat more involved watching a broadcast than live, I don't have to worry about my blubbering or exclamation disturbing my neighbors. I'm one of those rare (weird?) people who applaud and shout "Bravo" in the movie theater (or at home). If a performance touches me, I must express it somehow.