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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Seeing Is Believing

The drama behind the scenes at the Metropolitan Opera.

If you’ve ever wanted to be backstage during an opera, now’s your chance.

The Metropolitan Opera has begun beaming selected performances live into movie theaters around the world--and those broadcasts show not just the events on stage, but the behind-the-scenes support as well. Even if you attend the Met regularly, these movie screenings are not to be missed for the glimpse they provide of the high-wire act of opera production. That the backstage operations caught on camera are occurring live, as you watch, makes the experience all the more gripping.

Met patrons waiting in the actual house for the overture of Verdi’s Macbeth in January certainly had a sublime aesthetic journey ahead of them, one that no movie theater, no matter how excellent its sound system, can replicate. But holders of $22 movie seats saw something that not even occupants of $220 orchestra spots were privy to: conductor James Levine making his way up from the bowels of the facility to the podium just minutes before the performance began--only to be accosted by General Manager Peter Gelb and asked for his views of the opera.

As the seconds clicked down to curtain time, Levine goodnaturedly responded to the question whether Verdi had improved upon Shakespeare--“Being a musician, I tend to think so”--and assessed the challenges of this lesser-known opera: “For the two protagonists, it’s very difficult. As for me, it’s a difficult piece, but exhilarating.”

Levine even provided a brief overview of the evolution of Verdi’s musical style from early works such as Macbeth to later operas which broke with “the old Italian style of long lines.” Then, expressing what many a movie patron, acutely aware of the clock, must have felt, Levine added cheerfully: “But we don’t have time to discuss this.” Gelb got in one more query directed precisely to this countdown pressure: “It’s amazing that you can talk to me.” Don’t count on this in the future, Levine, in essence, responded: “If this were Tristan und Isolde, which I am conducting in March, I wouldn’t be here. I would be in my dressing room meditating.” The camera then followed Levine on the final stretch to the orchestra pit.

Once the music begins, the movie broadcasts settle into the more familiar conventions of televised opera and symphony concerts, including acute close-ups of individual orchestra members concentrating intently on the score during the overture--a shot that has outlived its usefulness--and both focused and sweeping coverage of the stage. The sound quality in the Irvine, California theater, where I saw the Macbeth and Hansel and Gretel performances, was superb. The Met’s camera work, directed from a trailer stationed outside the house, was often striking in its perspective and mobility; in Macbeth, for example, the camera swooped in from underneath the witches gathered on the heath, who were tricked out in this updated production as batty bag ladies wielding large handbags and sporting 1950s-style pillbox hats and wing-tip glasses.

The close-ups of the soloists belied Peter Gelb’s self-promotion as the impresario who will finally bring “theatrical values” to the Met. The Met’s artists are already acting quite persuasively, thank you--as John Relyea’s tense foreboding as Banquo, and Maria Guleghina’s sensuous exultation in power as Lady Macbeth, demonstrated. The camera also captures unfortunate directorial impositions that the audience in the hall itself might miss. How many occupants of the second balcony in Hansel and Gretel noticed that Gretel smears a Hitleresque moustache on Hansel after the children dispatch the witch to the oven, a gesture that suddenly makes perverse sense of the grey cinderblock walls, exposed gas pipes, and intermittent glaring white light of the witch’s prison-like kitchen? That Humperdinck’s lush score and story have absolutely nothing to do with the Holocaust is, of course, irrelevant to a Regietheater director like Richard Jones.

But however much the fancy camera work illuminates the stage action, it is the backstage perspective that, for the moment, is the real added value of the Met’s movie series--at least for people with access to the Met itself. Your pulse quickens as you observe eljko Lucic (Macbeth) alone in the wings playing with his cufflinks before the curtain rises on Act II of Macbeth, while the stage manager says, “Oh, crap. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon!”

Whoever it was who was supposed to “c’mon” apparently did so, for the next thing you hear is: “Get the camera off. Ten seconds to go. Houselights off! Cuing the maestro.” Undoubtedly, these little moments of suspense accompany every performance; but if you’re not used to them, they are rather hair-raising.

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.

This piece originally appeared in The Weekly Standard

This piece originally appeared in The Weekly Standard