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Eliot Daley

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How to Wreck an Opera-goer's Experience

Posted: 03/06/2013 12:11 pm

You have to figure that when a composer requests that you not applaud his creation, there's probably a reason that has nothing to do with humility. That is why my maiden voyage to the Metropolitan Opera's cinematic display of live performances in local theaters was at once thrilling and dismaying.

Thrilling, because the opera was Richard Wagner's Parsifal, his last-ever creation, in which he plunges deep into the most fundamental issues of being a created creature. The Met's production was brilliantly contemporary yet timeless, the performances compelling, the stagecraft arresting, and the music transformative. For the added benefit of us in theaters the camera work was brilliant, an exquisite blend of whole-stage and close-up images perfectly keyed to the unfolding drama.

The two-hour-long first act leaves the audience in a state of sublime, almost ethereal contemplation of what is unfolding before us. So sublime, in fact, that Wagner originally forbade any applause at its conclusion, lest his carefully wrought mood and mindset be disrupted by so mundane a ritual as clapping. And it was apparent to those of us watching it in movie theaters around the world that many in the live audience at the Met respected that long-held tradition, as only a smattering of applause appeared to emerge from them.

Wherein the dismay, then? Our ability to savor what the first act had kindled in us was instantly shattered by the sudden appearance on the gigantic screen before us of a genial "host" and--what?! -- a leading character from the opera, standing there backstage like a slightly befuddled passerby who had been intercepted for a street interview. Only seconds before, we had been entranced by his performance on stage, drawn in and totally absorbed by his character and situation. Now, yanked unceremoniously out of character, he is just some singer answering inane questions about everything except the weather.

"Wait! Wait! Stop this!" I wanted to yell. "Get him the hell out of here! Don't destroy what you have just taken two long, magnificent hours to create!"

Too late. Way, way too late. The destruction was immediate. I realized later we would have fared better if the giant screen had, instead, begun displaying a series of commercials for Vagisil, Burger King, and Harley-Davidson. I am serious about this. Given all the other promotions that are inflicted on movie-goers, we'd have instinctively nodded knowingly and just ignored them, drifting right back into our lingering reveries about Act One.

One can only conclude that whoever thought this was a fine idea must be a devotee of Bertold Brecht who famously sought to establish Verfremdungseffekt -- the distancing and alienation of the audience from the character being portrayed, with the deliberate intent of preventing the audience from losing itself emotionally in the performance.

Of course the effect of these intermission interviews only got worse after the second act, when the chosen interviewee jovially stood there in a hideously blood-stained shirt that depicted his un-healable wound that animates the Grail-seeking pilgrimage of Parsifal throughout the opera. Mind you, this hale and hearty chap is about to return to the stage in ten minutes and writhe around groaning in supposedly terminal straits, and we supposedly will re-attach ourselves to his plight and the entire premise of the opera that flows from his unstoppable bleeding.

With few exceptions, theater from time immemorial has employed the invisible "fourth wall" between the cast and the audience, and has relied on the audience's willing suspension of disbelief, in order to make the magic happen. When that wall is breached and that disbelief is unwillingly snatched away, the loss is irreparable. At Parsifal, the loss was not total -- the production was far too good for that -- but it was irreparable.

Those who attend the live performances at the Met are not subject to this degradation. I so hope that the Met's inflicting it on those who view the productions in movie theaters is not a conscious or unconscious refection of some notion that we hoi polloi require a level of non-stop "entertainment" beneath and beyond the taste of those in the seats at the Met itself.

But if there is some compelling reason for continuing them, then at the very least the screen could go to black for the first few minutes, with perhaps a reprise of certain musical passages, before corrupting our experience with TMI. That way we, too, could escape unharmed to the lobby for a drink and appreciative reflections with friends, and time our last-minute return to avoid the intrusion and gladly re-enter the world the Met had so magnificently created for us.

 
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