Thursday, October 28, 2010

Opera at the Movies: Better Than the Real Thing?

by Forrest Jones

I just saw the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. The singing was beautiful, the special effects were impressive, and set design was innovative. It was all of the things that we have come to expect from the richest opera company in the U.S., but there were a few things that you may not expect. First, it was only $22, and I only had to drive five minutes from my house in Reno, Nevada to see it. It was The Met: Live in HD at my local movie theater.

Opera companies are struggling to stay open and put on shows, and I am glad to see this move to reach out to new audiences. In an age of instant gratification and limitless entertainment opportunities, very few people are going to shell out $100 or more to watch a three or four hour opera. Not to mention the fact that you won’t see an opera of this quality unless you are in New York, San Francisco, or a handful of other major cities. Unlike the European state operas, American companies receive very little help from government funding. They are very heavily reliant on donations from individuals and foundations. They needed to make a move to change this downward trend and bring in some new revenue.

Here it is: live operas broadcast all over the country in movie theaters, accessible to both wealthy city dwellers and regular, rural Americans like me. Some may ask, “Is it really the same as going to see the real thing?” No, it isn’t the same, but neither is the price. 22 bucks seems like a lot for a trip to the movie theater, but a live opera would be at least three times as much for the cheap seats, and about 15 times as much if you want a view like the one you get on the movie screen.

And when I say it isn’t the same, I don’t mean it’s worse. In fact, there were some things that I enjoyed more than a live show. For one, the camera work is excellent. Using high-definition cameras, this production gets you closer to the singers than you could ever be in the audience of the actual auditorium. Watching the excellent acting of Bryn Terfel as the Norse god Wotan made the story much more compelling, and being able to see beads of sweat rolling down Eric Owens’ face (excellently portraying Alberich) makes you really appreciate how hard these singers are working up there.

Normally, the costumes and props are fuzzy because they are so distant, but tonight I could easily see the rippling muscles of the two giants and the fiery fingers of Loge, the God of Flame. The makeup and hair styles are also more easily appreciated. I was particularly impressed with the dreadlocks of Alberich that lit up whenever he cast a spell. These are all things I might have missed sitting in the back of the balcony of a live performance.

Another aspect of the filmed production that nobody in a live audience normally sees was the behind the scenes features before the performance. I enjoyed watching the three Rhinemaidens trying to learn to float across the stage on harnesses at an early rehearsal (“I’m F-ing Scared!” one of them said on her first try), and the pre-concert interview with Bryn Terfel, in costume and about to perform, was insightful and gave a personal touch to the show.

My final verdict on this experience? I thought it was incredible. There may be a little more excitement and electric energy in the actual Metropolitan Opera House, but you can’t see as well and you don’t get the behind-the-scenes look that you do in the movie theater. Most importantly, we have to look at the huge pocketbook advantage. If I went to the live performance, I would have had to spend $1,500-$2,000, including a plane to New York, a hotel, meals, cab to the show, and the show ticket itself. Not to mention missing work for a day or two. Instead, I had about 90% of the experience for 1% the cost. Sounds like a good deal to me. I recommend seeing the next one in a theater near you, and if enough people jump on this bandwagon (orchestra wagon?), maybe opera in America can make a comeback.


  1. So, to sum up, you really appreciated Alberich's sweaty dreadlocks and Fasolt and Fafner's rippling muscles. Got it.

  2. Don't forget those massive giants oooo, so powerful.

    This sounds awesome & all opera companies should be taking note *cough cough LA...
    Can i mention how bummed I am that LA Opera didn't record that awesome Ring Cycle they did?!