Who would have thought that in downtown Montreal we would have the luxury of witnessing some of the world’s most impressive operas, recorded live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City? This is the third season that the Met has collaborated with movie theatres around the world to screen high-definition (HD) recordings of opera performances. Montreal alone already boasts six participating theatres.
I was lucky enough to attend La Damnation de Faust by Hector Berlioz. I finally found a seat in the crowded room, sat down, and looked around. For the most part, the audience consisted of dolled-up elderly ladies in fancy hats, with a few middle-aged professionals hidden among them. But with tickets fairly modestly priced at $25, it was disappointing to see so few students in attendance. The function began with orchestral music playing in the background, making the audience feel more like they were sitting in the Metropolitan Opera itself. Before the first act, the audience was treated to a sneak peek backstage. The singers, Marcello Giordani, John Relyea, Patrick Carfizzi, and Susan Graham were interviewed. Graham, the mezzo-soprano, nervously drank water, joked to the interviewer about how she had to climb up hundreds of steps to reach the point where she was to start her performance. Her interviewer’s sarcastic response was “don’t break a leg!”
Alexis Hauser, the internationally renowned conductor of the McGill Symphony Orchestra, explains that the behind-the-scenes video clips, “give audiences a picture of how many people backstage are working hard to make events onstage successful.” This is one advantage to watching a filmed opera onscreen. Viewing an opera live is a completely different experience. Opera performances are so full of action it can be hard to know where to look, but the camera’s gaze acts as a guide, revealing the most important shots to the audience. “The close-ups and overall visual technology in general give you a different perspective than being at the original location,” Hauser comments.
“Because the acting of the singers can be followed so much in the foreground,” he adds, “audiences can be emotionally more involved, feeling almost part of it, particularly since the subtitles clarify the story at every moment.” La Damnation de Faust was created using relatively new techniques, in which live actors interact with digital technology. In one scene, for example, actors ride digitally-projected horses.
The impact of seeing the opera on the big screen is tremendous. However, Hauser explains, “there is of course one not-to-be-forgotten setback: the disadvantage of hearing the music and singers electronically rather than naturally.” Taking in an opera in a movie theatre is, of course, a more realistic and engaging experience than watching one on DVD in one’s own living room. “The size of the screen and the acoustic environment are more rewarding,” Hauser notes. It’s even more rewarding when “one gets to share the impression with a huge audience.”