Liveblogging a DVD performance of Richard Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten, I'm marveling at how the whole business of opera is morphing (you could say) before our eyes.
Review the bidding:there was a time when you went to the theatre and listened while overweight and overaged warhorses belted out the favorites (sometimes they sat on stools, which cannot have helped the drama). Then somebody cooked up the ides of translation--I still have a couple of CDs of Italian operas sung in English, and they're actually not bad. -
Then the operatic Bolshies stood the whole business on its head with translation subtitles--an innovation from which the purists have not yet recovered. Subtitles (surtitles) are a problem, I admit, when they are so situated that if you watch the subtitle, you can't be watching the stage (or where, like the Kennedy Center, there are parts of the theatre from which they can't be seen at all). But they sure made the whole process accessible to a much broader audience. I got a sense of what life was like before subtitles a couple of years back when I went to a performance of Die Zauberflöte--an opera I have seen many times--in Budapest, sung, of course, in Hungarian: if you didn't already know what was going on, you were just lost.
And then recordings. Along about 1944 my mother, determined to inflict a little culture, brought home as stack of 78rpm recordings of longhair favorites. One of them was laabeled Rienzi. Since the operatic Rienzi extends over six hours (two evenings), it is interesting to wonder what we could have gleaned from a three-minute disk.
Then come LPs and then CDs and a whole body of quite respectable full-length performance.s But of course, vocal only: we can imagine the cast in Levis and sweatsuits with folding chairs and music stands.
VHS and DVD brought some quite respectable repackaging of live [performances like the one I'm watching right now (Solti, from Decca). But even the best of these are pretty static, in the sense that they show you little that you wouldn't see if you were sitting in the audience.
Somehow it took the Met's new HD to liberate the techies to play with the old toys in a wholly new way. So far in the first couple of seasons it has been free-range experimentation (bliss was it in thet dawn to be alive!). Some of it is goofy but forgivably goofy as they explore the limits of this whole new venture. One thing that is clear is that the electronic version is moving further and further away from live performance. Example: we saw Hamlet at the Met a few weeks aback and then just fdays laater Mrs. B. (though not I) caught an HD replay. She says it is a whole different show when you can see Simon Keenlyside's nosehairs,
Someday soon, someone will ask--no, wait, surely somebody already has asked--hey, wait a minute, why do we need the live audience anyway? If we did away with those messy spectators, there's no telling how much we could come up with by way of swoops and dives--we wouldn't have to worry about the camera blocking anybody's view. And we could do it all in Wichita, where the rents are lower. And so the Met finds a whole new home.
Fn: A particular enthusiasm--I don't know if anybody else does this or not, but I like to watch Italian opera with Italian subtitles--I can almost make it out that way. And if it works for Italian, I should think it would work for English just as well--uncoupling "subtitle" from "translation altogether."