According to the New York Times, Puccini's Tosca received the "loudest and most sustained" booing in memory when the New York Metropolitan Opera recently produced it in 2009. The new staging of the Italian libretto led by Swedish director Luc Bondy replaced Met audience's long-favored Franco Zeffirelli version—and the New York opera crowd apparently didn't like the way Bondy interpreted the piece. The action scenes, the Times reported, "failed to impress."
Around the world, however, as Met attendees watched Bondy's Tosca with dismay, 1,500 movie houses in 46 different countries streamed a live broadcast of it to more receptive audiences. As it turned out, the live cinematic broadcast, which uses swooping camera angles and close-up shots of the opera stars on stage, did a better job of capturing the stage action. The controversial Tosca production also marked the first Missoula broadcast of The Met: Live in HD series. At the Roxy Theater where 70 people gathered to attend the show, there was no booing to be heard.
"The things that the audience disliked about the set design and staging in the actual production didn't really come across in the cinema," says Andy Morris, Missoula's producer of The Met: Live in HD. "The [broadcast] had opportunities to create angles and create drama and tension with the camera. And it ended up being more static for people sitting in the Met audience than for those watching it on the screen."
It's a counterintuitive idea: that watching a filmed version of a staged opera could, in any way, trump the experience of being in the actual audience at the Met. However, in a recent Live in HD broadcast in Missoula of Puccini's western, La Fanciulla del West, the benefits seemed obvious. As the opera singers belted out songs about bandits and gold mining, the camera swooped above and through the set providing a high-definition view of the singers' facial expressions and gestures. Even more stunning was the ability to see up close the details of the set—not just books on shelves and barroom props, but the immense work and depth of the mining camp setting, with its realistic storefronts and a backdrop of the snowy Sierra Madre Mountains, which made it feel more like an endless, real place than simply a stage with limiting boundaries.
You can't exactly pretend you're at the Met, but the 20-minute intermissions and the fact that people actually clap at curtain call differentiate the opera broadcast from an average movie-watching experience, adding to the live-action feel. Backstage interviews with performers and documentary tidbits between acts give the broadcast an added feature. During one La Fanciulla del West intermission, for instance, they showed the secret to making stage snow: a dozen men above the set took turns churning out confetti over the stage.
Other recent Met productions have also benefited from the extra dimension that live broadcasts allow. Das Rheingold, for instance, used a set with elaborate planks that could shift in ways to produce the illusion of a river and, in the next instance, become a maze of underground tunnels aided by CGI images. It managed to impress audiences at the Met, but it also offered broadcast audiences more eye candy as well.
"It was embracing a new technology," Morris says, "They were able to use camera angles to further distort the image for broadcast."
It's not just the sets that have changed, says Morris. The Met's newest general manager, Peter Gelb, apparently has a new vision for the opera singers, too, that will add to both the in-person and broadcast experiences.
"Peter Gelb doesn't like his singers to 'park and bark,'" Morris says. "For a long time that's what these singers would do. You can envision this huge Wagnerian soprano parking in front of the stage and just going for it for three hours. That was what they did. More and more you see singers really having to take on more acting and more movement."
Morris knows what it's like to experience opera in its liveliest forms. The Missoula native spent his post-graduate years as a French horn player studying music at London's Royal Academy, the Hochschule academy of music in West Berlin and the Zurich Opera House Orchestral Academy. But it was when he won a spot with Milan, Italy's orchestra, the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi (aka La Verdi), that opera piqued his interest. La Scala, the renowned opera house in Milan, had its own elite house orchestra that got the main gigs, but Morris' orchestra got to take on any extra work as well as stage its own concerts.
"There's a saying in Italy about classical music funding," laughs Morris. "It's that La Scala is the snail that eats everything in its path and the slime that's left behind is what the rest of the orchestras get to eat off of. We were lucky."
After five years in Milan, Morris finished a master's degree in performing arts management and decided to head back to his hometown, Missoula, sharing his newfound passion for opera in the form of HD broadcasts. Missoula's audiences have jumped from the 70 in attendance for Tosca, to 150 in attendance at last week's La Fanciulla del West. Morris has also begun broadcasting live productions from London's National Theatre, as well as recent recordings of live productions including this week's FELA!, which is a world music hybrid of theater, dance and music.
"With the National Theatre," says Morris, "this is only their second season but they're taking a much more encompassing approach than the Met, covering a much wider range of dramaturgical works. There's frequently new works being produced whereas with opera you're dealing with works that are between 150 and 200 years old."
Still, the Met is experimenting with new ideas, too. February's Met opera Nixon in China by American composer John Adams is a far cry from Verdi and Puccini, and is bound to challenge conventional opera-goers. For Morris, it's just one more step in the quest to expand broadcast audiences and expose them to what's happening in the most storied venues for performing arts.
"It's creating this dialog," says Morris, "where everyone around the world is seeing these for the first time together."
FELA! screens at the Roxy Theater Sunday, Jan. 16, at 4 PM and Tuesday, Jan. 21, at 7:30 PM. $16/$14 seniors/$11 students. An encore presentation of La Fanciulla del West screens Saturday, Jan. 15, at 7:30 PM. $19/$17 seniors and students.