Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Cinema Live Opera Relay: ROH Macbeth

Last night I finally got my hands on a ticket to see a live performance of an opera relayed to a local cinema. Finally? The popularity of these events is such that tickets are in considerable demand. For some this popularity is a minor phenomenon, especially given that opera is a live theatrical experience and that the art form itself is generally seen as rather rarefied. So this 'phenomenon' deserved investigation, whatever the quality of the performance (Verdi's Macbeth from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, which, as it happens, was superb).

The technical demands of the relay are very high. The feed must be consistent for the three hour running time. The synchronisation between sound and picture has to be perfect. Above all the quality of the sound (let alone the HD picture) has to be the very best available. This may seem like a very obvious point. Yet it is worth making: the principal attraction of opera is not visual but sonic. It is certainly the one issue that has allowed me to procrastinate in undertaking this experience in the past.

I saw the performance at a Picturehouse cinema, one of a modest chain of independent cinemas, where the technical capability was up to date. On arrival I was given a copy of the cast list (above), a skeletal programme with details of the performers and production crew, rather like the notes that are available at BFI screenings. I got to my seat five minutes before the 1930 start time, which is typical of my visits to the conventional operatic theatre.

Here I encountered my only real culture shock of the evening and in two ways. Firstly, and least worrisomely, the Royal Opera had produced an advertisment for their company featuring a famous Puccini aria. So moments away from listening to an evening's opera by one composer we were given the music of another. This is hardly a big problem, although it became a much more serious affair by being repeated during the interval - i.e. within the context of the music-drama which is ongoing.

Secondly, and rather more irritating was a short introduction broadcast-as-live from backstage given by the evening's music director, similar to this:

Part of the experience of an opera is the first contact with singers' voices, costume designs etc. in context on the stage. Seeing and hearing the singers in rehearsal, the company in the wings preparing to go on and the director  peppering his description of the story, music and production with adjectives intercedes between my experience and the performance. It is, in my opinion, counterproductive and worse, patronising. In the usual cinema experience, one is not shown a trailer for the film one is about to see immediately prior to watching the film itself.

These were, in my opinion, two errors of judgment and the only cognisant miscalculations of the event. One further inevitable issue of intervention is that in which cameras follow the instruction of a broadcast director to focus on a particular character or exclude others from the frame. In the theatre one has the opportunity to see all characters at once. Characters that a broadcast director may, reasonably, feel are peripheral might yet have some important bearing on the nuance of the drama. From what I could see this wasn't really an issue in the coverage of this performance, with an non-dogmatic use of the cameras and the close-ups on characters on whom I would have chosen to rest my attention anyway.

Overall I must admit, I found the experience thrilling, involving, exciting. Being so close to performers usually at a certain minimum distance away, being able to vicariously experience their intensity was fascinating, even narcotic.

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Lady Macbeth
© Clive Barda, from intermezzo.typepad.com
Part of this experience is to do with the knowledge that the broadcast is live. In a film screening, there's a tacet acceptance that the film is a fait accompli. The actual director and actors are absent in the moment. The tension of the experience is that between oneself and others in the auditorium. In live performance, the primary exchange must surely be that between the performer and the audience (both individually and corporately). It's a direct physical connection. Primarily it's a dialectic relationship: 'I'm saying this, now'. That in itself is electric - although a composer has specified what ought to happen at any given moment, the moment itself has not been pre-produced. Furthermore, this dialectic establishes a real relationship between the performer and audience. There is no intermediary. This is a very important issue in live performance, the person-to-person dramatic transaction. It's a moral issue and the basis of the deeper transformative (and often cathartic) experience of being an audience.

In the circumstance, this connection had a very peculiar character. I could feel the traction between the performance and those around me (as well as in myself). Acting on that was a funny reality check though - where in the auditorium one would have burst into applause at the end of an particularly well-rendered aria, attempting the same sort of release in a cinema auditorium eight miles away invariably acted as a slap in the face, a violent reminder of this surreal fact. There were smatterings of applause during the screening. These were sporadic and short lived though - not through the disdain of others in the auditorium but simply through their own self-evident incongruity.

Equally incongruous was the spatial issue of the sound. The cinema I was in had an excellent sound system but nothing could mask the fact that the direction of the sound came not directly from the mouth and face of the performer but from speakers staggered behind and beside the screen. One barely notices the imagination-step required to connect a character speaking on screen to the voice that is heard in TV and film. However, this being live opera I found myself looking for the direct cord between the singers' output and my experience. This is the basic component of the tension which I referred to in the previous paragraph, a palpable link made conspicuous by its absence. Or rather circuitousness: my experience during the first show-piece aria of the star soprano (pictured above) was that of the sound hitting the screen and then finding its way to the edge of that screen before rushing around to grab me.

I found myself wondering whether this manifest fourth wall is a peculiarity of the experience that might be addressed by the recent development of 3D. Despite my basic misgivings about the technology and its trappings, I did appreciate the necessity of using 3D in the Werner Herzog film Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, in which the extension of a body in space, the third dimension was part of the content, rather than an effect. Clearly I missed the physical relationship that I discovered I find crucial to the live experience, that it's part of the content of the performance. However, I come back to the issue of sound. Unless the technology can be advanced to render the sound as coming from the performer rather than being associated with them then 3D remains a peripheral attraction, not a component.

There's plenty to be had in the relay experience though. The proximity to the performers and the clarity of sight of the entire stage is the obvious benefit. There are other issues as well though: the convenience of being able to pop out to your local cinema instead of having to travel in to the venue; the relative informality of the cinema; the perception of lower cost. I enjoyed the experience and will return for more in future.

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