Sunday, February 7, 2010

Opera and the unreal

We dug out from a big snow yesterday and drove to the mall to watch Simon Bocanegra on the Met HD Live. An unreal experience, or rather one that shapes its own reality. (A little like Avatar, perhaps?)

Unreal: the darkened room, the cushy seats -- we are barely aware of others in nearby seats. These theaters eliminate the outside world, the icy roads, the to-do lists, the constant chatter of reality. And these days, we seem to remember to turn off our cell phones.

Unreal: the live feed on HD. Here we are in Strongsville, Ohio, but the sound and screen are in Manhattan. The New Yorkers we see in the onscreen audience read the synopsis just as we do, chat with their neighbors. Only they're dressed rather better than we are, and they are hundreds of miles away. I know this kind of "live from the White House" occurs on all 625 channels all day on TV, but I don't watch much of that, so this feels a little new. And it's so intense: the large screen, the audience chatter in surround sound, and of course the opera itself take me out of Ohio.

Unreal: the plot. 14th-century Genoa, politics and coups, lost orphan daughters, poisoners and hooded revengers out of an Elizabethan tragedy. Yes, you don't go to the opera for the plot, people say, but even so, it's important. During the opera, I can't keep asking those nagging questions about the reality of what you're seeing: how did the orphan girl end up as the ward of her father's enemy? who just freed the tenor from prison, and why? Even while I know that the plot is absurd -- so absurd that I have to read the synopsis ahead of time, and how unreal is THAT? -- I keep trying to find the real in that unreal web.

Unreal: the backstage. In the Met HD Live, you get to go backstage, before and after each act. The singers have just finished an amazing trio, the curtain comes down, and before you know it you're behind the curtain, watching a sweaty Placido Domingo walking towards you; he takes a hand-held mic and Renee Fleming is talking with him about how you sing Verdi or how you age yourself 25 years between acts (disarmingly sweet: he says it's not hard, he just takes off the young-man makeup and looks his actual age). We see the stage sets being wheeled around on their enormous trolleys, banks of lights already attached to them to shine through the windows with the illusion of Italian sunshine. All that breaking of illusion; the fourth wall is there one minute, and gone the next. And even so, when the opera's on, all that disappears: the fake sunlight is real, just as the absurdly fabricated plot is real.

Unreal: the singing. No, not the usual thought about how people dying of poison don't usually sing their farewells. Rather this: that the singing is so extraordinarily good, so out-of-this-world, that it seems unreal even while it moves me. I'm drawn into the emotions and the situation in ways that realistic drama can never do.

Unreal: the whole gestalt. It takes so much--talent, money, conviction, leisure, work-- to make it happen: top stars, the best-paid orchestra in the world, a scene shop to die for, a master composer. . . . And it takes hours to pull it off. Where in life do we find all these things together, and the time to let it go, at its own pace?

Unreal: the musical score. In one of the between-the-acts interviews, Kiri te Kanawa spoke about her role upcoming in La Fille du Regiment, in a non-singing part. Without the music to time her responses, she said, she was having to improvise, invent her own timing -- as actors do all the time in realistic drama. She was missing that central unreality of opera: the wonderful, strange convention that plot, action, thought, emotion are all governed by a musical score in which time is predetermined.

An afternoon in Strongsville at the Met: as unreal as the Super Bowl, and at the same time much more real than tonight's ritual contest will ever be.