Sunday, October 17, 2010

The HD paradox - or should I say parallax?

Can you really hear Wagner at the mall?
I've been meaning to write something about the HD experience again for some time, and my recent exposure to Das Rheingold, which has coincided with local discussion of the-Met-at-the-mall phenomenon,  has given me more food for thought about this increasingly-dominant mode of viewing the performing arts.

Think I'm kidding when I say "increasingly dominant"?  Think again.  The first theatre I looked to for Das Rheingold tickets was already completely sold out - two weeks in advance.  I wound up seeing the opera in Revere, of all places - in a venue of maybe 1,000 seats, which was also almost completely sold out.  In fact, every HD performance I've attended in the past year has been either a sell-out or a near sell-out - which matches the Met's own publicity, which trumpets that its HD broadcasts play to 91% capacity (translating to over 920,000 viewers over the course of a season).  And the Met is hardly alone; there are other opera HD series available locally, as well as a dramatic series from Britain's National Theatre.

So HD has become a very popular way to view high culture.  But what precisely is it?  To many, of course, it feels just like "live" performance (because there's no delay in its transmission to the cinema) - only heightened somehow.  That's the way I felt too, after my first exposure (to Racine's Phaedra, with the great Helen Mirren); HD seemed much like a live performance, only with larger-than-life actors. Since then, though, I've begun to have some doubts about whether I can really consider an HD transmission "live" or not.

And I'm not alone - although it seems some critics have enthusiastically embraced the difference between HD and "live."  Over at the ArtsFuse, for instance (which yes, I've begun reading again out of irritation with its editor), the erstwhile Helen Epstein has been singing the praises of HD - only now she's gone even further, after a recent visit to the actual Met, and has announced that she prefers seeing her opera at the mall. She likes the close-ups; she likes the louder sound; she likes having the subtitles right up there on screen; she even likes having the director decide what and whom she's going to look at!  Indeed, Epstein all but revels in a consumerist passivity before the pleasures of processed performance; she doesn't want to engage with the Met - she wants to "experience" a kind of meta-Met instead.

But troubling little differences between that meta-Met and the Met itself have begun to crop up.  I was surprised to learn, for instance, that Richard Croft, who sang the role of Loge in Das Rheingold, had been booed at some performances; it seems that his tenor (which is a little light for Wagner) hadn't always been able to penetrate to the stalls of the cavernous Met.  But the HD microphones, of course, were hanging just out of sight, along the proscenium - and as any recording engineer will tell you, microphones even out the sizes of different voices.  No wonder Croft sounded great at the mall!

I noticed another strange discrepancy between HD viewers and critics who saw the actual "live" performances.  Many of these reviewers were struck by the acting of bass Eric Owens in the role of Alberich.  Alex Ross in the New Yorker was particularly ravished; he declared that Owens was the "chief glory" of the production, and that his performance "is so richly layered that it may become part of the history of the work."

Only I was watching Owens in close-up, and I'd have to say: nuh-uh.  The voice was terrific - and to be fair to Ross, he seemed to be conjuring all sorts of theatrical magic purely from Owens's musical prowess.  Which is something opera fans have often (and perhaps always) been prone to do.  But the HD audience had no such luxury; the acting ability, or lack thereof, of the singers loomed before us larger than life.  I wouldn't say Owens was bad, but he was a bit blank - and in HD, that complicated his vocal performance.

There have been other odd gaps between stage and screen.  Amusingly, some things seen clear as day on the Met's actual stage have never made it to the multiplex.  Standards of stage nudity slammed into doubts about Middle America's tolerance for naked naughty bits when the Met instructed its cameramen to discreetly avoid the bare boobies in the background of Bartlett Sher's Les Contes d'Hoffmann, at left. One could only wonder - what would they have done with the striking climax of David McVicar's controversial Salome for the Royal Opera, below (the video for which was even pulled from YouTube)?

So as you may now appreciate, there's a kind of paradox latent in HD performances - or perhaps the better word is "parallax," that funny word for the gap between what you think you're seeing through your camera lens and what it's actually picking up.  Croft benefited from the HD parallax; Owens didn't.  (And we all lost out on the girls from Hoffmann.)

Already some critics have begun to express concerns about these discrepancies between "live" and HD.  In the Washington Post, reviewer Anne Midgette wondered aloud in irritation whether Das Rheingold had been "cast for the simulcast" - that is, with photogenic singers who sounded fine over speakers, but couldn't cut it in the theatre.

Midgette may have a larger point than she realizes.  The bottom line about HD is that it simply cannot convey a true theatrical experience; the atmosphere of the house, the response of the crowd, even the  actual acoustics - all that is missing.  Meanwhile, the language of the cinema (close-up, establishing shot) subtly intervenes between viewer and performer.

What's becoming clear, I think, is that HD is really a hybrid form - it has the immediacy of "live" theatre, yes, but in the end it's inevitably mediated visually and aurally.  And if something works onscreen but not onstage - who's in the right?  After all, the opera's largest audience is on its mediated end, out at the mall, seeing the whole show in close-up, through state-of-the-art speakers.  (Thus singers trained to project an oversized voice, with a persona to match, may now find themselves having to be method actors instead, while technicians mix down their voices.)  So will the Met and the National begin playing more directly to the mall rather than the hall?  Will the performance style of HD productions subtly shift to the perceptions of this huge new audience?  I guess we'll all have to stay tuned to find out.


  1. I have conflicted feelings about the Met in HD. As an opera fan, I prefer experiencing the performances live at the theatre, even if that means a Family Circle standing room spot for Das Rheingold. And I cringe when I overheard people who say how much they enjoy the HD and how they prefer HD to the "real thing" (as in the case of Artfuse's reviewer).

    OTOH, the several times I have gone to a Met HD screening, I guiltly enjoyed them. I liked the fact that I can see the singers facial expressions as well as subtle gestures. These are details I can't appreciate from a Balcony seat even with the aid of opera glasses.

    In any case, I'm for Met in HD if it means more people get interested in operas, and hopefully some will consider seeing a live performance by their local opera companies. However, I'd be disappointed if Met in HD means that operas will now be staged for cinemetic purposes rather than for the 3800 in-house audience.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Yuen. I'm not "against" HD - and I'll probably be seeing more of the Met at the mall (Boris Godunov is Saturday, btw); I'm just becoming more and more aware of its limits and distortions, and I certainly think it's a mistake to ever prefer mediated to live performance.