The Sopranos on the Big Screen

Scenes of the Met at the movies: from left, Verdi’s Macbeth; Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, starring Anna Netrebko.Photo: Ken Howard/Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

If you happened to be at the Metropolitan Opera a couple of weeks ago for Roméo et Juliette, you saw the two lovers first beguile each other across an empty stage. The tenor, Roberto Alagna, slumped behind a wall while soprano Anna Netrebko sang the free spirit’s anti-matrimonial credo, “Ah! Je veux vivre,” enveloped in her private bubble of lyricism. If, at that exact moment, you were watching from the Caribbean Cinemas in Santurce, Puerto Rico, or the Metropol in Copenhagen, or the Luna in Perth, Australia, however, you saw a feverish exchange of close-ups and flirtations, the void between Capulet and Montague extinguished by editing, soprano and silent tenor joined in the embrace of Gounod’s urgent music. Roméo isn’t even supposed to be in that scene, but the camera made him indispensable.

I was sitting in a high-tech truck parked behind Lincoln Center, where the TV director Gary Halvorson was furiously calling shots. On a wall in front of him was a grid of screens, showing three angles on Alagna and several more on Netrebko, plus a handful of shots that took them both in. Halvorson issued a steady stream of orders to the button-pusher on his right, cuing each cut with a peremptory finger-snap. “Three! Five! [Snap.] Three. Ready, Six … ready, Six, but hold it. Holditholditholdit—and Six! Back to Three! I said Three, goddamn it! Forget it. Now Five! [Snap!]” Then, an aside: “They’re doing it totally differently than they did in rehearsal—Roberto’s all over the place.” In theory, Halvorson, the camera operators, and a couple of assistant directors all follow the same script, but Alagna’s vagaries had triggered a few minutes of frantic group improv. “That was fun,” Halvorson remarked afterward. “Don’t try that at home.”

Roméo et Juliette opened the Met’s second season of high-definition broadcasts to some 600 movie theaters on four continents; about 100,000 people saw the matinee on December 15, and only 3,800 of them were in the opera house. (Hansel and Gretel is up next, on New Year’s Day, and Macbeth on January 12.) Those aren’t big numbers in Hollywood, and with each broadcast costing almost $1 million to produce, the whole project is merely breaking even. But the Met has learned it can, in many cases, sell out the movie theaters weeks in advance and reach pockets of interest everywhere. (The broadcasts are also coming out as commercial DVDs and will eventually show up on pay-per-view.) Milan’s La Scala has also started sending pretaped shows to American movie theaters, and the San Francisco Opera is trying to one-up the Met by teaming with the Bigger Picture, a distribution company that claims to have better projection systems than the Met’s partner, National CineMedia.

Opera has been a presence on television for decades, but to me it always seemed stunted and pained on the small screen. In the theater, audiences can let their eyes wander. Distance and intoxicating music disguise the fact that the child bride is actually a sturdy lady of a certain age. But in the old-fashioned style of repackaging performance for TV, the camera just stays riveted on a soprano’s quivering tonsils and her gaudy, pulsing greasepaint. In the Met’s new broadcasts, however, the production values recall Monday Night Football more than they do PBS. Halvorson uses more than a dozen cameras for 1,600 shots—enough to reinvent the way opera appears onscreen and to nudge the form into its next evolutionary stage. And while the broadcasts may not change the way opera sounds, they do transform the way audiences hear it. In Roméo et Juliette, Halvorson followed the conductor, holding a shot for the length of a fermata, waiting for the downbeat before ordering a switch. The broadcast is not merely a record of a performance but an interpretation of an interpretation.

A wiry Hollywood veteran, Halvorson brings to opera a sensibility honed by pop entertainment. He studied piano at Juilliard before starting a directing career that has included scores of episodes of Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond, plus the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. At his bidding, the Met fitted the stage with cameras that roll on rails, horizontally along the lip and vertically along the proscenium, so that the viewer’s eye can burrow into the drama or glide above it. In Roméo et Juliette, one overhead camera offered what Halvorson calls the “the Busby Berkeley view” of the turntable. He also framed Alagna from below, so that the tenor could loom heroically against a spangled purple sky. During a couple of scene changes, which the Lincoln Center audience spent looking at the curtain, he had Steadicams following the principals backstage.

Traditionalists worry that such ubiquitous video might turn opera into a cheap reality show, privileging pretty people over old-fashioned artists with platinum vocal cords and lumpish bodies. In fact, though, the lens favors singers who know how to use their eyes and the corners of their mouths—singers who can act, in other words. The star of last season’s Il Trittico was Stephanie Blythe, an unsvelte mezzo-soprano who sang three roles in three personalities, linked by an incandescent voice and her natural onscreen magnetism. Even beautiful people have to adapt: Renée Fleming told me that performing for the camera involves completely different techniques from playing to the house, and she didn’t exclude the possibility that she might tailor her singing, too.

From left, John Macfarlane’s set design for Hansel and Gretel; some of the technology behind it all (that’s Peter Gelb leaning on the counter at right).Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Technical Department; Ken Howard/courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

Naturally, the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, doesn’t want anyone to think that a broadcast, no matter how sonically faithful or technologically resplendent, rivals the real thing. “Live opera is still a three-dimensional experience, and there’s no substitute for that,” he told me. I’m not so sure. I’m not about to give up my orchestra seats at the Met, but if I had to choose between paying $80 for a spot in an upper balcony and $22 to sit in the middle of the action, I just might make for the nearest multiplex.

The next chance for that will be at Hansel and Gretel, in the new production by Richard Jones that restores some bracing creepiness to the tale Engelbert Humperdinck so sweetly bowdlerized. Jones refuses to find the charming side of starvation, or to candy-coat the cannibalism. Kids don’t mind—children like a little artful bloodshed, and at the Met for the Christmas Eve premiere, my 10-year-old consultant gave the stark weirdness his stamp of approval. He (and I) particularly enjoyed Philip Langridge’s memorably mad performance as the Witch. The trim tenor, swaddled in a fat suit with a mountainous bosom, plays her as a fusion of Mrs. Lovett and Julia Child, stirring, beating, and whipping bucketfuls of ingredients in a delirium of culinary sadism. He sends toxic-looking clouds of flour and cocoa drifting across the stage. He splatters himself with battery gore as if he’s just murdered a cake, and funnels a gallon of his Pepto-Bismol-colored concoction into the trussed Hansel’s mouth, spilling it voluptuously onto the floor. It’s a cooking show for psychopaths.

Beautifully sung, and brilliantly conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, this is a production geared to children fortunate enough to grow up immersed in their parents’ food neuroses, surrounded by talk of diets, diabetes, and bad carbs. If the original story of Hansel and Gretel emerged from primal fears of famine, Jones has brilliantly translated it for an era terrified by abundance.

Hansel and Gretel
Metropolitan Opera. Next broadcast January 1.

The Sopranos on the Big Screen