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Classical music fans can now enjoy live simulcasts of the Metropolitan Opera and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in movie theaters across the country. But purists worry that close-ups and surround sound are affecting who gets the plum roles in these productions. We explore the differences between watching live and watching on the big screen.
- Anne Midgette Classical music critic for the Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.50 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, a great American poet, Nikki Giovanni, on great American poetry. But first, opera has been somewhat resistant to technology, but it's transformed that rarified world nonetheless, dazzling computerized stage sets with elaborate lightning are now the norm for big productions. And after some controversy, super titles now scroll above the stage in most opera houses, translating the Italian, French or German songs into English.
MR. KOJO NNAMDINow, another technological innovation or invasion, depending on your perspective, is becoming common. Live, high definition simulcast of operas sent to movie theaters across the country allow audiences far from major opera houses to enjoy performances on the big screen for $20 a ticket.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISome see it as a great way to introduce opera to a new audience, but purists feel much is lost in filmed performance and they wonder if the introduction of microphones and close-up camera shots is shifting the ideal of opera singer. And with it, who gets the plum roles? And they fear it could shrink attendance at live opera performances even further. Joining us to discuss opera at the movies is Anne Midgette, the classical music critic for the Washington Post. Anne, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. ANNE MIDGETTEThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd you, too, can join this conversation. Are you an opera fan? Would you watch opera in a movie theater? Call us, 800-433-8850. How does it work showing an opera in a movie theater?
MIDGETTEWell, it works pretty well since most of the showings in Washington have sold out. It's very hard to get a ticket. It's mainly the Metropolitan Opera which pioneered this and has the setup to send HD broadcasts around the country and around the world. You could go in Munich, Germany at eight o'clock at night to see the two o'clock matinee on Saturday. They do about 10 a year and it's been a huge success for them.
MIDGETTEAnd a lot of other companies would like to follow suit and are doing so more slowly. La Scala is beginning, Covent Garden Opera House in London is beginning. The difficulty is also with union contracts because, of course, you have to pay extra money to broadcasts things. And while the singers love the exposure, the orchestra musicians want to make sure that they get their rights observed as well.
NNAMDIMore people are seeing us, we should be making more money as a result of -- you can already hear the Met and other operas in many ways on Sirius Radio, on video, aired as great performances. What's different about seeing it in a movie theater? There have been some issues with the quality of what some theater show.
MIDGETTEWell, the movie theater is live, for one thing. I mean, that's true of great performances as well. But there's something really fun about going into a dark room with a lot of people and watching the opera and eating popcorn while you do it. I mean, opera was originally a very popular art, and I think the movie theaters in a way restore some of that populism, rightly so, to a form that's often regarded as very elitist and high brow.
NNAMDIYou mentioned that the Metropolitan Opera in New York has been doing this for the past few years and that shows here are just about sold out. But where can you see opera in a movie theater around here? Hint, hint, hint, hint.
MIDGETTEWell, there's the (word?) Gallery and if you to the website of the Metropolitan Opera, you can get a full listing of where they're showing operas. But there's another series, which the West End Cinema in Washington is showing, and that's the European Opera series which is mainly from Covent Garden and La Scala, and those are not all live. But starting January 31st, they're doing an eight-week series of HD broadcasts.
NNAMDIHere's what you'll be seeing on January 31st.
NNAMDIComing to a theater near you, January 31st at the West End. Renee Fleming in "La Traviata," singing the song "Sempre Libera." Correct?
MIDGETTEIn which the courtesans says she's going to go on leading her life free the way she wants to, which, of course, in the act, she immediately goes back on because she lives for love instead.
NNAMDIYou consider yourself an opera junkie. How do you feel about bringing opera to movie theaters?
MIDGETTEWell, I'm of two minds. I think it's great to get the art form out there and anything that increases interest in the art form is wonderful. I am concerned that it changes casting, lots of bad casting. The Met vehemently denies that a casts for the camera. But obviously, the era of the fat soprano is threatened if you have to think about how somebody's going to look on screen.
MIDGETTEAnd I worry very much that the quality of voices is lost or changed, voices that sound good on recording -- voices that sound good in the house don't always sound as good on recording. And voices that record well are not always the most exciting in the house. And when I've compared live and recorded or live and movie theater performance of the same opera, I found that sometimes the voices that are really not very impressive in the house come off awfully well in the movie theater.
MIDGETTEBut on the other hand, I really fell in love with opera myself after seeing a movie broadcast of "La Traviata," not with Renee Fleming. It was the Zeffirelli movie version of it. It wasn't the broadcast of a live performance. And there's a lot of criticism you can make of that movie. But as a 16 or 17-year-old, I was completely and totally hooked. And if that could happen to other people throughout the broadcasts, who am I to poke holes on it? Although as a critic, it's my job to poke holes on it.
NNAMDII was about to say, you're a critic, that's what you do. 800-433-8850. You can be a critic, too, offer your opinion on opera being available in movie theaters yourself. That's 800-433-8850. What do you think about it? Is recording a performance where in the live performance, the singer's voice might not be very clear on stage, but in what you see in the movie, because everybody is miked differently, does that improve or distort the singer's voice?
MIDGETTEWell, you can get into a question of what is better.
MIDGETTEAnd we get into that question with all forms of recording. And recording has had a tremendous impact, particularly on classical music because the whole premise of classical music and classical singing is that you're doing it without a mic. You're doing it naturally and what you're hearing is this real, this sort of live thrill. But of course you can make anything sound better if you record, you know, in the recording studio for audio recording. You can fix the tuning, you can paste in better notes.
MIDGETTEIn the movie theater, they don't play with it that much. But, of course, every sound engineer is going to try to get the best possible sound. And that's when you get into a philosophical debate about what the point is of it and maybe you have to take a step back and say the point is just to enjoy it and that each person is going to enjoy it in his or her own way. As a critic, of course, it's my job to voice my concerns about maintaining the integrity of the live experience. And...
NNAMDIWhat's been traditionally the ideal of the opera singer, a big voice?
MIDGETTEI would say, above all, the thrill of the live voice, not necessarily big, although the stereotypical opera singer has the huge Brunhilda voice with the veins coming out of her head. There have been some very great singers who didn't have huge voices. The tenor Jussi Bjorling comes to mind as somebody who didn't have an enormous voice, but was a tremendous, tremendous singer. But I think vocal beauty is paramount. You get somebody like Maria Callas, who's an icon of singing, who was known for powerful acting as well as for her voice. And people have been very critical of her voice, especially at different periods of her career. So there's not one absolute. But the voice in the last analysis is what it rides on.
NNAMDIAnne Midgette is the classical music critic for the Washington Post. We are talking about live opera being presented in movie theaters. Here is Roxie in Washington, D.C. Roxie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROXIEHi, Kojo. Hi, Anne. It's a pleasure to be on your show. I listen all the time.
ROXIEWell, so I'm an opera singer so naturally I'm very excited about the Met HD broadcasts because, you know, I don't live in New York City. I live in Washington. So, when I can see it in the theater, they're exciting for me. Well, anyways, I saw Elina Garanca's performance in the Met version of "Carmen" in the movie theater and then I saw it in New York. And I have to say that it really enhanced the experience because being in the theater -- in the movie theater, it was, you know, you got close-ups, but it was a completely special experience seeing that in the theater. But I thought it enhanced the experience because I could appreciate it more having seen it in the movie theater beforehand.
NNAMDIThe perspective of somebody who actually performs in operas, Anne.
MIDGETTEWell, it's interesting and I could ask, does that also happen if you listen to a recording or, conversely, if you saw the theater performance first, might it enhance your appreciation of the cinema version? But those of us who love opera know well that the more you see something, the better. Perhaps that was true in this case, too.
NNAMDIThink so, Roxie?
NNAMDIYou think so?
ROXIEYes, I think so. You know, and it's funny. The whole time when I was in the theater in New York, I was looking through binoculars because I couldn't take my eyes off of the Elina Garanca. Having seen her up close, I think it kind of changed the way I would have watched it. Because if I hadn't seen it in the theater, I don't think I would have included the binoculars. But I just had to see her close up and see her facial expressions because, you know, I wasn't very close. But it definitely changed the way I enjoyed it. But, you know, I still enjoyed it and, you know, I mean, it's the Met. How can you not enjoy it?
NNAMDIRoxie, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Jim in Arlington, Va. Hi, Jim.
JIMHi, Kojo. Yes, I enjoy your show and listen often and love opera. I wanted to know if Anne had any insights into problems with reception in the local theaters. Recently, I attended the encore performance of "Don Carlo" at the Regal Ballston Common Theater and it was just terrible. The reception was awful and they were blaming the Met and snow or something that's affecting the transmission, although it was a repeat performance. And then, again, there were problems two days later when I went to La Scintilla Saturday at the opera, you know, live from the Met, porcini's (ph) opera. Not quite as bad, but people were storming out and they were giving extra tickets, you know, for future movies or opera.
JIMAnd I talked to a woman who's demanding a refund and she said she went to the performance of the "Don Carlo" over in Maryland at the theater there the same night I watched it and it was so terrible (unintelligible) said it was absolutely fine. So there seems to be some problem there and I wonder if you had any insights on that or the problems in transmission from the Met or is it just the local theater maybe has poor equipment.
MIDGETTEWell, Jim, it's funny that you're not the first person to alert, in particular, the Regal Ballston Theater. I even called the manager of that theater because a reader had written in to complain about the same exact performance. And I called the Met to ask them about that as well. And they said that, basically, each theater is responsible for DVR-ing the performance. But the encore performance happens two or three weeks after the live performance. And that gives the theater time, theoretically, to check the quality. If the quality's not good, they can go to the Met and the Met will provide them with an HD quality, you know, disc or whatever it is to air.
MIDGETTEBut evidently, there hasn't always been quality control. And some of the encore performances have suffered as a result. As for transmission problems with the live performance, I think that is weather induced. But I can't speak for every theater, but I have and experienced more than an occasional glitch. I know when I saw a live performance from La Scala at the Charles Theater in Baltimore, there was some transmission glitches at the beginning and those are things that are being ironed out.
NNAMDIWhy won't theaters just be happy to get that perfect copy from the master, from the Met rather than taking the chance of messing it up themselves?
MIDGETTEMy conjecture is that from the theater's point of view, the Met broadcasts are this kind of odd one off. You have maybe 10 a year and then another encore performance, but they happen individually. And for a theater manager who's working in a theater with seven or eight screens that are showing one film six times a day, the Met broadcast is not of paramount importance.
NNAMDIJim, thank you very much for your call. Opera is, of course, also a spectacle and visual so it makes some sense to film it. The L.A. Philharmonic is also bring its performances to theaters. What do you think of filming orchestras?
MIDGETTEWell, it's an interesting question. And it's amusing because I asked the director -- the manager of the L.A. Philharmonic a few years ago what she thought about new technology and classical music. And she explicitly said, I love opera in theater, but if you show the New York Philharmonic or the L.A. Philharmonic in movie theaters, nobody would come. And low and behold, three or four years later, here we have Gustavo Dudamel, the L.A. Philharmonic, in movie theaters and all the same theaters the Met is in.
MIDGETTEThere's a big difference. And although Gustavo Dudamel has a kind of rock star persona in the classical world, evidently the theaters were not as full as they are for opera. It is obviously a more specialized audience because there's not as much to watch. Opera is all about the visual impact and the spectacle.
NNAMDISo if you don't have a photogenic conductor, then people don't show up at all?
MIDGETTEWell, oh, no. I think if you have an aging lion, perhaps people would show up. But they are trying it, notice, with their -- Gustavo Dudamel is 29 or 30 now and he is kind of a good looking and exciting and charismatic figure.
NNAMDIHere is David in Silver Spring, Md. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDHi, thank you. To a couple of comments. Number one, as to the broadcasting of opera, Texaco did it 50 years ago with the Met and continued for many decades. Adding the visual is just keeping up with available technology. But when you gave your opening remarks, you suggested, as I recall, that individuals singers were individually microphoned, kind of like "Rent" on Broadway. And my understanding is that the Met uses the single microphone above the stage so that the microphone itself did not intrude visually into what was going on on the stage.
MIDGETTEThat's correct, David. I've been to other houses where they do use mikes, not to get the sound out into the auditorium, but for archival recordings. But the Met does not put mikes on people. As for the Mets' radio broadcasts, you're also quite right, they've been going on for 50 years. And one of the reasons that the Mets' visual HD broadcasts were able to take off so fast is that the Met has this extremely loyal radio audience.
MIDGETTEAnd they've continued to develop that as well. I think the Mets' philosophy is to continue to distribute opera as widely as possible and, of course, these HD broadcasts end up then airing often on PBS and then ultimately destined for DVD release. So if you wait two or three years, you'll be able to buy them in stores.
NNAMDIDavid, thank you for your call. We got this comment posted on our website by Ann. "I'm a poor graduate student studying the sciences so I love the live HD broadcasts because I can afford them. Are there plans for better youth outreach in the D.C. area? I find it frustrating that most of the people at the shows are the same people you see at the live operas, mostly old retired people, a subset of whom could afford to go to the original shows. It would be great if there could be more live broadcasts with more outreach so that more young people could attend," like, one 16-year-old some years ago.
NNAMDIThat was -- the last part was my addition.
MIDGETTEWell, I'd say that -- that broadcast I went to was a regular movie theater. I paid my ticket. But as far as outreach, of course, the incentive for the Met to do outreach, although they're very interested in getting a younger audience in the house, in terms of these theater broadcasts, if you're selling out regularly and you have a waiting list, it's hard to think about trying to do outreach to get more people in there. But I would say your observation is absolutely correct.
MIDGETTEIt is mainly the same audience. And studies they've done have actually shown that it's mainly the existing opera audience that's delighted to have this other outlet. And that the new audience is a little slower to come.
NNAMDIYou mean, Gustavo isn't bringing every young person there?
MIDGETTEGustavo is a case unto himself because it's only happened once. Although he's coming -- there's another broadcast in March so we can start get a critical curve there.
NNAMDIHere now is Judy in Washington, D.C. Judy, your turn.
JUDYThank you very much for your program today on opera. I think it's terrific and Anne, welcome to Washington. Critics are important. My master's thesis was on opera education in the '70s because people were worried that our audiences were shrinking. I was particularly interested in how we're going to educate our young children in the form. I talked a lot about (word?) opera. What they did was opera in translation and -- so the people could understand the English. They also hired singers who were attractive, something that has worked very well for (word?) .
JUDYAlso agree with you about the movies. La Traviata, you referred to, is one of my all-time favorites. I think that anything we can do to broadcast opera to spread it is -- we should do it. And I'm very anxious to see "Nixon in China" in New York live and then come back here and see it at their broadcast to see to try to compare. But distributing opera as widely as possible, I think, is -- we must do it to keep our audiences. Thank you.
NNAMDIThis is a wave of the present and the future, is it not, Anne Midgette?
MIDGETTEIt absolutely is. And I think that both Judy and Roxie's earlier comments show that one thing that opera does -- one thing that broadcast can do is put opera more in reach of those who love it. That you can go compare the live show to the broadcast and the -- you know, when baseball was put on TV, the team owners were all extremely concerned that they would have smaller -- people wouldn’t go to the ball park anymore because they would see it on TV. And of course, instead, audiences grew tremendously.
MIDGETTEAnd one hopes the same thing will happen with opera, although the cost factor is -- does play a role. It's too expensive, as your commenter noted, to go for many people.
NNAMDIJudy, thank you very much for your call. Anne Midgette, thank you for joining us.
MIDGETTEThanks so much for having me.
NNAMDIAnne Midgette is the classical music critic for the Washington Post. When we come back, a great American Poet, Nikki Giovanni, on great American poetry. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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