Watching film director Anthony Minghella‘s production of the Metropolitan Opera’s Madama Butterfly unfold onscreen at the local movie theater in live HD (High Definition) broadcast from the opera house became a reflexive experience of seeing a film director’s choices for a live theater performance translated again into film. Minghella’s lovely and innovative production of Madama Butterfly originally opened the Met’s 2006 season, a triumph for the new general manager, Peter Gelb. When the opera was reprised at the Met this season (after Minghella’s death last year), it was chosen for one of the live HD movie theater broadcasts that Gelb has pioneered for the opera house.
The March 7 performance of Butterfly was a dramatic feast for the eyes and the ears, although seeing it in the movie theater did not decrease my desire to see and hear it in the opera house. At the live broadcast, there was a heightened level of excitement in the audience, even as people were taking their seats. Rather than the usual movie ads, the screen showed special Metropolitan Opera ads and opera facts, while the Met orchestra could be heard warming up over the speakers, just as they would be heard in the opera house. Rather than movie previews, when the lights dimmed, the audience was treated to RenÃ©e Fleming interviewing the cast and crew backstage.
As the opera began, a solo dancer emerged in silence, setting the stage for the detailed and period feel of the production with her gorgeous Japanese costume and spare yet graceful choreography. The set was minimal and dark, with sliding screens forming most of the necessary boundaries, but it served as the backdrop to wonderful lighting and costume choices that brought the space to life in vibrant, surprising ways. From the glowing lanterns and falling rose petals in the first act to the choreographed bird dance in the second act, this production is full of visual treats that further enhance and elaborate on the music and drama onstage.
Patricia Racette sang a lovely and compelling Butterfly. This role is difficult to cast because it requires a singer who can play a young, innocent girl (she’s supposed to be 15), yet sing with power, stamina and dramatic intensity rarely called for in opera. The American soprano impressed both with her vocal beauty and power as well as her sensitive and age-appropriate portrayal of Butterfly. In the first section of Act II, where Butterfly almost never leaves the stage or stops singing, Racette showed no signs of fatigue, even as she threw herself into the part of a young mother yearning after her absent husband. Because of the vocal demands of this role, which require a voice of a size to carry over Puccini’s orchestration, it is often sung by voices that are quite dark and rich. Racette’s voice, while certainly powerful enough, has a brighter quality to it that conveys Butterfly’s youth better than some voices which may be suited to sing it. There were a few times that the brightness of Racette’s tone could have benefited from a little more richness, but this effect may have also been a result of the microphones necessary for the broadcast.
Marcello Giordani‘s Pinkerton sang with great passion and his acting conveyed a man enchanted by the lovely Butterfly, but unwilling to take responsibility for his actions. While the Italian tenor hit his high notes without difficulty, his voice occasionally sounded husky and less focused in his lower register. It is difficult to tell how much of the huskiness may be a result of the microphone amplification.
The Suzuki of Maria Zifchak was dramatically sung and acted. In one of the intermission interviews, Zifchak remarked that the audiences’ interpretation of Butterfly is dependent, in many ways, on Suzuki’s reactions to her. The American mezzo-soprano’s loving and compassionate portrayal of her friendship and service to Butterfly made the experience of Butterfly’s betrayal and grief much more heartbreaking than it would have been without Zifchak as a foil. It was impressive and moving to see both Zifchak and Racette succumb to grief and despair in such believable ways without compromising their beautiful singing.
Dwayne Croft was charming and world-weary as the American consul, Sharpless, caught between his responsibility to the Americans and his sympathy for Butterfly. The American baritone sang with richness and poise.
One of the most unusual things about this production was the decision to use Bunraku puppetry throughout the production, most prominently for the character of Sorrow, Butterfly’s little boy. Opera directors have historically struggled with the difficulty of using a real two or three-year-old child in this role. Audiences are always charmed by the sight of a real child toddling onto stage during Sorrow’s first entrance, but most children this age cannot do much real acting and need to be guided through all of their scenes by the adult singers onstage, which can be very distracting for the singers. Minghella and his wife, Carolyn Choa, who directed and choreographed the production (she said that they chose this opera because it brought Italy and the Far East together, just as their marriage did), chose to use a puppet for Sorrow because they felt it could sensitively portray the little boy without compromising the singing and staging, while also tying in an ancient Japanese theater tradition.
Bunraku originated in Osaka in the 17th century. The puppets are crafted with great detail and are manipulated on stage by three puppeteers in full view of the audience, one each for the head, hands and feet. The puppeteers wear black clothes and hoods over their heads, with black veils over their faces. In the original production, some audience members were disconcerted by the sight of the puppeteers on stage, but the sensitivity and detail of the puppet acting the role of the child made it easy to suspend disbelief and focus on the relationship between Butterfly and her son. Several other puppets were used for other small non-singing roles, as well as to stirring effect in a dream sequence toward the end of the opera when Butterfly dreams of a reunion with Pinkerton and puppets portraying each of them dance this dream above the stage.
Meant to be live?
While the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Butterfly was a great success, it was more difficult to determine the ultimate success of the live HD transmission. The most significant issues raised by these groundbreaking transmissions remain whether the sound quality and enhanced visuals can transport the experience of a live theater space into a movie theater. Opera is meant to be sung and heard in a live theater space, where the sound waves bounce off the walls and travel through listeners’ bodies, creating an experience that cannot be rivaled by any electronic mediation. The miking necessary to transmit the live sound to the movie theater also affects the sound quality. The difference is more noticeable in certain voices, but it is also noticeable at times in issues of balance. This broadcast was better balanced than previous HD transmissions, particularly with regard to the orchestral balance with the singers. In some previous broadcasts, the orchestra sound has been too present and has not matched the balance of the opera house. It is still troubling to hear the orchestral sound coming through the speakers at the same spatial level as the singers, whereas in the opera house it comes from the pit and blends differently with the voices in the space.
Visually, the close-ups available in the filmed opera are both a strength and weakness of the HD transmission. The incredible details and precision of Han Feng‘s gorgeous costume design were seen much better on the movie screen than they could be from most seats in the opera house, although there is no doubt that the rich colors and shapes of the costumes translated very well on stage. At the same time, the black-hooded puppeteers could also be seen in more detail on screen when they were meant to blend into the background and not distract from the action on stage.
The greatest effect of the visual focus of the cameras, however, must be on the acting of the singers. The acting techniques required to communicate to a 3,800 seat opera house are much larger and broader than those required to communicate on HD video, particularly a 10-camera production that includes many close-ups. Stage acting looks bizarrely overdone on camera and in some of the intermission interviews the singers remarked on the need for natural reactions and subtle acting choices. This naturalistic acting was very effective on camera, but it does beg the question of whether the acting seemed more subdued in turn for the audience in the opera house. Judging from the impassioned audience reaction it did not seem to be the case, but perhaps the emotion is conveyed better through the voices in the live space, whereas the close-ups of true emotion on the singers’ faces in the HD screening help make up for the less affecting experience of hearing the sound through speakers rather than live in the space.
As the director of the HD filming, Gary Halvorson did a good job of maintaining the flow and feel of the theatrical production. In previous HD transmissions, some directors have chosen to focus on close-up details to the detriment of the overall effect of the theatrical elements. Shots of individual instruments playing in the orchestra, numerous cuts to dancers’ feet or reaction shots from the chorus may all be interesting filmic elements available to the camera director, but they ultimately detract from the power of the theatrical experience, which is the sum of many parts working at once. Halvorson restricted the close-ups in favor of capturing the full stage view in most cases, attempting to do justice to the magical effects of lighting designer, Peter Mumford, and set designer, Michael Levine. The glowing colors and elegant choreography read beautifully on screen, but more than anything they worked as incentive to see this production in the opera house where the full effect of the innovative staging woven around the live music can be experienced.
The Met’s HD broadcast series was begun as a bold new approach to bring high quality opera to areas of the world without access to good opera houses and to also create new audiences for the opera house. Since December 2006, they have screened 14 productions over two seasons, with 11 more scheduled for the 2008-2009 season. There are nine production broadcasts scheduled for the 2009-2010 season, with the possibility of adding a tenth. In January, the broadcasts surpassed a million in ticket sales, already exceeding the total expected ticket sales of 850,000 for the 220 performances scheduled for the opera house. The Met has suggested that a 12% increase in opera house ticket sales can be connected to the popularity of the broadcasts, although they have not offered proof. It is obvious that the broadcasts are popular; even in New York City where live opera is available at every level, the broadcast screenings are sold out months in advance at most theaters. While at $22 the screenings are cheaper than most (but not all) seats at the opera house, it is not clear that the broadcasts are drawing new audiences to opera. At the screenings I’ve attended, the theater audience has been made up mainly of the same older demographic seen at the Met.
The overall concept of sending high quality opera out to the “provinces” is not a new one. In many ways the HD broadcasts are building on the old Met tours, as well as 78 years of Met radio broadcasts. But the high visibility of the HD broadcasts and their great popularity have led to concern that a focus on filming opera could seriously affect both the production of opera and the audience perception of it. Singers that are acting for the camera and singing for the microphones may be chosen more for their visual attractions than their ability to project over an orchestra in a large house. Audiences who become used to hearing live sound mediated through speakers may lose the ability to appreciate and judge the benefits of real voices in a live space. Smaller, local opera companies may suffer from audiences choosing to see Met broadcasts over tickets to local productions.
There is not enough data to determine whether these fears will be realized if the HD broadcasts continue, although some anecdotal evidence provides arguments both for and against these fears. Letters to the Editor of the New York Times (February 22, 2009) from cities like Anchorage and Iowa City speak of being thrilled by the opportunity to see high quality opera more frequently (even bringing children), while still attending the few opera productions available in their area. Other letters mention the broadcasts encouraging them to buy tickets to the opera or other concerts. On the other hand, some small opera companies do report slower ticket sales due to people choosing the broadcasts over traveling distances to a smaller company. There are also some complaints from audience members at the Met who have been distracted by the filming of the broadcasts.
But concerns aside, the economic success of the broadcasts suggests that they will continue, and spawn copies. More than a dozen other significant opera houses, including those of London, Florence, Venice, Milan and Salzburg, are now broadcasting their own productions (although many of these are not live). An unexpected result of the success of the Met broadcasts is movie theaters beginning to offer more non-movie programming, including live sports events, TV marathons, and live concerts.
For the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts, the 850 participating movie theaters are in every state in the U.S., as well as 30 other countries around the world (with theaters being added on a regular basis). See www.metoperafamily.org for information on theaters and schedules. The Canadian encore presentation of Madama Butterfly is Saturday, April 18. The remaining production this season at the Met is La Cenerentola (May 9).