June 26, 2019

Television opera: from the end of "NBC Opera Theatre" to "The MET in HD"


One of the promised marvels of educational television, according to the futurists of the day, was that it would be able to serve audiences for niche programming without being subjected to the ratings pressures that had propelled such shows to the Sunday afternoon ghetto, or off the air entirely. And indeed, for the first few years after the death of NBC Opera Theatre, NET and its successor, PBS, did continue to broadcast opera, albeit irregularly.

One of the network’s most notable telecasts was Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden, which had premiered at the New York City Opera in 1965 and was transferred, using the NYCO’s cast and sets, to NET Opera Theater in 1967. The network, under the leadership of former NBC Opera Theatre producer Peter Herman Adler, even commissioned several operas for television, including Beeson’s My Heart's in the Highlands in 1970, Thomas Pasatieri’s The Trial of Mary Lincoln in 1972, and John Eaton’s Myshkin in 1973.* Kirk Browning, who had done such a fine job directing many of NBC’s productions, served a similar role for NET/PBS.

*CBS, in fact, commissioned a trio of operas of their own in the late 1960s: Menotti’s Martin’s Lie in 1965 (after Menotti had broken with NBC over the new production of Amahl), Ezra Laderman’s The Trials of Galileo in 1967, and Benjamin Lees’s Medea in Corinth in 1974. Laderman also composed an "ópera-cantata," And David Wept, for the network in 1971.

Increasingly, PBS’s opera broadcasting moved away from studio-bound productions in favor of broadcasts of performances being staged live (or on tape) in opera houses. The Metropolitan Opera quickly became a staple of such performances, on PBS’s Great Performances series, although productions from other companies, such as the New York City Opera and the Minnesota Opera, appeared on occasion. What all these broadcasts had in common was that the network, rather than staging the opera as they would a television show, simply moved their cameras into the opera house, as if they were televising a football game.

By “simply,” I don’t mean to minimize the effort required to broadcast these operas, nor do I suggest that doing so was a simple proposition—it wasn’t. Nevertheless, the result differs in many ways from that seen in the early televised operas. For one thing, the director no longer had the latitude to move cameras and sets around to give viewers perspectives not available to the live audience in the theater. In watching the broadcast of Lizzie Borden, for example, one notices the way in which the camera is able to move through the sets and treat the opera more like a television drama. Crane shots, moving through rooms and around walls; it’s all a strikingly different, even intimate, experience. If the camera is indeed the eyes of the viewer, then the viewer has unprecedented access to the opera. I’m not using this as an argument for returning to live television, by the way; if anything, the quick cuts, changes in perspective, and the dramatic tension that results is made far easier by the use of videotape. (If you need more evidence, check out the BBC’s production of Billy Budd in 1966, where the production crew constructed a scaled-down replica of the ship—something that would have been impossible in an opera house.) But even a casual glance at the live broadcast of Amahl in 1951 shows effects and camera angles that could not have been witnessed by the live audience. Not for nothing is television known as the most intimate of media.

There was also the use of the close-up. Initially, directors in studio-based productions had been reluctant to use close-ups of the singers, feeling it to be a liability rather than an asset; Jennifer Barnes reminds us that, “The last thing you need as ‘Celeste Aida’ approaches its final high B-flat is the sight of the tenor’s trembling jowls, crossed eyes, and other alarming but typical symptoms of the strain towards achieving the note.” Menotti alone seemed to master the art of the close-up, mainly by using them primarily with young performers; Lois Hunt in CBS’s The Medium, and Chet Allen in Amahl. In so doing, and by blocking the scenes so that the singers would turn toward the person to whom they were singing, rather than looking directly looking into the camera, he emphasized not the “singer,” but the “character,” drawing the viewer into a more sympathetic response than if the singer had been an adult. However, advances in television technique, as well as technology*, especially with the coming of the HD era, made their use increasingly prevalent.

*The concept of the close-up had also changed from the early days of television, when picture quality and size often spurred directors to use shots in which the actor’s face filled the entire screen. 

Finally, there was also the factor of deciding what to show the home viewer; whereas the action in early television opera was staged with the dimensions of the television screen specifically in mind, the staging of a production in the opera house had a far greater scale, with numerous bits of action happening simultaneously in different parts of the stage. Focusing on the singer(s) necessarily meant cutting off a portion of that action from the television viewer, while focusing on incidental subtleties meant excluding the singers from the shot. It was a small thing for most viewers, but it meant that the television director was acting in effect as the eyes of the viewers at home, choosing what they would or would not see.* In the hands of an experienced director such as Browning, such a challenge was easily overcome; nevertheless, the peripheral movement behind the singer can easily become distracting, especially when competing with the subtitles that had become the norm with televised opera.

*I do think, however, that such productions benefit greatly by being shot on videotape rather than film. While the studio experience allows for greater latitude than the theater stage, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re still watching the musical equivalent of a play, not a movie. The sense of immediacy obtained through videotape lends to the viewer’s ability to conceive of the opera as a live event. I’ve seen operas shot on film; invariably, they lack that same immediacy.

All this might not have been an issue had the early promise of cable television been fulfilled. Almost without exception, visions of cable TV included at least one channel devoted to cultural programming, where live theater and concerts could thrive. And, as was the case with educational television, there were cable channels that followed this example: CBS ARTS, A&E, Bravo, Ovation. Had even one of these channels continued with their commitment to cultural programming, we might have seen the continuation, if not the growth, of operas made for television. As it is—well, you get the story.

A major change in the televised opera came in the early 2000s, when the Met introduced its “Live in HD” series, consisting of 10 or so operas that would be broadcast live in movie theaters (for paying audiences), and then rebroadcast on PBS at a later date. As the Met got into the swing of the big screen broadcasts, a number of things became apparent, most notably the tendency of directors and set designers to stage their productions with movie viewers, rather than the live audience at the Met, in mind. For example, a production of Britten’s Peter Grimes that came across as intimate and powerful on the screen was seen as lost and overwhelmed on the Met’s enormous stage. Singers often came across as employing gestures and movements that were suitable for theater viewers but failed to make an equivalent impact to those in the house. (The Times has a good article here on how the HD broadcasts have changed opera.)

Even the look of the performer became an issue, as casting directors were accused of choosing singers based on their physical attributes more than their vocal talents. A singer with a stout physique might look fine to someone in the ninth row of the second balcony in the Lyric Opera House in Chicago, but not to home viewers accustomed to more, shall we say, telegenic performers. And while someone like Anna Netrebko has justly earned her reputation as a great singer, her good looks certainly don’t hurt.

It’s all about compromise, of course. In a way, it’s no different from how viewers of NBC Opera Theatre had to resign themselves to abridged versions of their favorites, accompanied by commercial interludes. It’s the price one has to pay to have opera on television at all. You’d like to think that there would be one channel out there that could take something like opera as a loss leader; Jennifer Barnes points out in Television Opera that from the end of NBC Opera Theatre to 2002, the BBC, and Channel 4 commissioned 19 television operas, while American networks commissioned 10, and none after 1974. It’s possible that the Brits are simply more cultured than we are; it’s also the case that it’s a lot easier to program cultural television when you’re being subsidized by the government.

We frequently hear, however, about how American schools have abdicated music appreciation classes, often driven by economic reasons. One of the positives of the “Live in HD” series is that the Met has sought to engage schools in these broadcasts, bringing a form of music education to children. Television could do a lot more of that, and foundations could do more to make it economically feasible. Millennials, however, who seem so dedicated to direct involvement with social issues, never consider the redemptive power of music. We’re told that television is just another market-driven medium, that if opera was more popular, it would show up more often. The flip side to that, of course, is that it might be more popular if it showed up more often.

When I think of the Golden Age of Television, I’m usually drawn to the idea of live drama (which, as I’ve pointed out before, is a genre of its own, separate from filmed or taped drama), and that includes higher cultural fare such as opera. While today’s age of prestige television might be technically superior, might have stronger dramatic power, might be more able to address topical issues, it doesn’t mean that these shows provide us with all that we need to become more well-rounded individuals. It was a given, in the early days of television, that this was one of the medium’s societal responsibilities; it was a fear, in the eyes of many, that such a responsibility would eventually be abdicated. To the extent that it has, television will always be a flawed medium, one that never reached its potential—one that, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, gave us 57 channels and nothing on. That number has now doubled, or even tripled, but has anything really changed?  TV  

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