The Magazine

Seeing Is Believing

The drama behind the scenes at the Metropolitan Opera.

Mar 3, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 24 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
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Some of the most haunting images of the performances were not created by the director and were not visible from the hall itself. Moviegoers at Macbeth saw an unknown female figure sitting somewhere in near darkness with just a single shaft of light on her, a picture of overwhelming solitude and vulnerability. Not until the scene begins do we realize that we have been observing Maria Guleghina on the Met's huge stage in the moments before the curtain rises on her sleepwalking scene. For an instant you can almost imagine what it is like to be alone in that gargantuan space about to face 4,000 spectators expecting you to carry flawlessly to the highest reaches of the house.

Soprano Renée Fleming has been catching singers as they leave the stage between acts, and asking them to talk about the opera (sometimes a Met staffer conducts the interview). Like the pre-performance chat with James Levine, these real-time conversations create a certain tension in the moviegoer: Shouldn't the singers be allowed to retreat to their dressing room to rest up for their next hurdles? But the stars appear surprisingly relaxed and willing to discuss their character and the challenges of the role, notwithstanding that a stagehand has just had to mop the sweat off their brow from the previous act's exertions.

These X-rays of performances are not without cost. They break the illusion of the stagecraft and create a Janus-like experience of back-to-back fiction and technical reality. The surreal man-trees in the forest of Hansel and Gretel walk into the wings and remove the branches that sprout out of their big jackets in place of heads. The silent bulbous cooks wait among hanging power cables and electrical panels before gliding onstage with the banquet that director Richard Jones substitutes for Hansel and Gretel's traditional angel dream pantomime. Conceivably, after hearing the stage manager cue the company a few more times, the moviehouse viewer will yearn for a pure frontal experience of opera again, without seams and armature.

For now, however, the Met's breakthrough venture into movie production has expanded not just its audience but the experience of opera as well. And audiences are eating it up. There was hardly a seat to be had at the Irvine broadcasts in January. A patron who has been attending the shows since last year predicted that the line for La Bohème in April would begin forming three hours before the show began.

Even more hopeful for the future of opera, the Met's new initiative has inspired competitors. Covent Garden and the San Francisco Opera plan to start releasing their productions in movie theaters; La Scala already has done so. Asked to comment on these competing projects, some of which promise even better sound and visual quality than the Met's High Definition technology, Peter Gelb replied that the Met broadcasts would remain superior because they alone would be live.

Before I attended a Met screening, I had assumed that Gelb was simply differentiating his product on whatever ground was available. But having watched a live Met performance from 3,000 miles away, I see his point. All the better for us all: The other entrants to this operatic movie venture will presumably strive to develop their own engaging features to beat the competition.

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.