Monday 12 August 2013 the cinema?.....should we be eating popcorn?

So the new trend seems to be to show operas from big opera houses in the cinema. I am not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand it means a lot more people can get to see opera but on the other it really doesn't give you a real sense of what opera is all about. Opera is over the top. The whole art form is, in many ways, ridiculous. You have to suspend your disbelief and believe that people do sing at each other in life. On top of this there is the added element that we have to sing the same thing over and over again, often while someone is singing something totally different at the same time, to get our point across. It is very silly to begin with, but a camera honing in on an opera singer gurning their way through tricky coloratura (really fast, florid runs and stuff for those who have never encountered the word) could put people off. We opera singers were never meant to be seen in close up.

Now, I like a trip to the Royal Opera House. I love it's grandeur and red velvet seats but there is a lot to be said for sitting in the informal setting offered up by a cinema. No one tuts if you have to get up and nip to the loo halfway through. You can eat and drink to your hearts content while watching, something totally verboten at an opera house (however, I must stress I did not eat popcorn or even a hotdog and I did roll my eyes when someone brought nachos in for the second half of "La Donna del Lago" the other week). So the relaxed nature of the experience is a definite plus point. Another plus is that it costs around £12 to see an opera at the cinema and you can see a lot more than you might see in a similarly priced seat at the actual opera house it is broadcast from. However, no matter how good a cinemas sound system is, it can never recreate the phenomenon that is the opera singer's voice.

Tonight, I went to see the Scottish play in operatic form (Macbeth, by Verdi, in case you can't guess) with the glorious Simon Keenleyside and an equally glorious Liudmyla Monastyrska. In my eyes Keenleyside can really do no wrong so I was going to love him no matter what but I had never encountered Monastyrska. I have a feeling that, if heard in the flesh, Monastyrska's voice would pin you to the back of the auditorium when in full flight it is that enormous, and, although you could tell it is a big voice, in the cinema you will never feel the full force of such an instrument. Having said that her control over the whole of her voice is incredible. It's big but it can move and her pianissimo top D flat at the end of the sleepwalking scene was the best I have ever heard. 

The other aspect you will find yourself judging, in my case harshly, is the acting. Acting in opera has come a long way but there is still a long way to go. In an opera house an opera singer has to be larger than life and some of the time, particularly with melodramatic pieces like Macbeth, if you watch them on the screen, TV or cinema, a performer will look like he/she is overacting. This is where Monastyrska fell short. No amount of pointing and hand clenching will convince anyone you are "acting". Plus if Simon Keenleyside wants to snog your face off you let him (perk of the job). You don't do that awful pretend "we are kissing" acting. It doesn't work. Especially when you are in close up. (Of course it could have been Keenleyside that didn't want to kiss Monastyrska but I refuse to believe that. He is all about realism.) 

Opera singers like Keenleyside and Joyce di Donato, who I saw in "La Donna del Lago" a few weeks ago, are the benchmark that we opera singers need to work towards. They still give the big performance required in an opera house but it is alway real, always truthful. Theirs are the kind of performances everyone working in opera should be able to deliver. Yes, they are exceptional in many ways but the quality of your voice is not enough to satisfy audiences now. The days of "Park and Bark" are over. Although, that said, I forgive Monastyrska slightly for her acting as, vocally, she is just WOW! Generally, however, it is not enough to just wow me with your vocal prowess. I want to be moved by a performance, to go on the journey with the singer and understand what that character is going through. If I am not a blubbering wreck by the end of "La Traviata", for example, the singers/production have not done their job.

So is opera in the cinema a good thing? Yes. Anything that makes opera as accessible as possible (even for the inherently lazy amongst us) has to be a good thing. Will it ever replace the need to see opera live? Absolutely not. One of the best feelings in world is being pinned to the back of the auditorium by the force of an opera singer's voice......and Simon Keenleyside can pin me to the back of an auditorium any day!

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