From Opera to Opera: The Movie

06/06/2007 03:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The two greatest art forms known to humanity -- opera and baseball -- have never been mutually exclusive. Countless Seattle Mariners home games have, for example, begun with artists from the Seattle Opera singing The Star Spangled Banner. The voice of Robert Merrill began hundreds of New York Yankee games likewise. Honus Wagner, meet Richard Wagner.

Modern day baseball involves the provision of services to two distinct audiences: The fans who buy tickets to the ballpark, and the fans who watch games on television or hear the games on the radio. The folks who take themselves out to the ballpark are also expected to park their cars in stadium lots, eat high-priced victuals, drink even higher-priced beer, and load up on Officially Licensed Merchandise. Each branch of commerce provides a revenue stream for the team.

The television audience contributes to the team indirectly. The more fans who watch, the greater the ratings and, accordingly, the greater the cost to advertise on the broadcasts. The more ad revenue to the station, the greater the cost that the team can exact for broadcast rights. Of course, if the team also owns the network on which the games are broadcast (or gets a piece of the receipts), the increased advertising revenue goes straight to their bottom line.

Since the days when Franklin D. Roosevelt was Governor of New York, The Metropolitan Opera operated on a scaled-back version of that formula. One audience was the subscribers and single ticket buyers, the folks who lived in (or came to) New York to see a live performance played out in front of them. The other audience was the folks who listened to the Saturday afternoon broadcasts, which The Met used to establish its reputation as America's Greatest Opera House, sell tickets, and build the audience for opera in America. In roughly that order. For decades Texaco underwrote the cost of the broadcasts and the radio network on which they aired.

Broadcasting the opera on the radio involved no changes in the physical production: You set up microphones, cued Mr. Cross or Mr. Allen in the Texaco Broadcast Booth, and off you went. With the exception of the microphones placed on the stage apron, it did not differ from any other performance in the house. But many years ago, someone had the bright idea of making video recordings of opera performances, and the changes wrought by this were massive.

At the most basic level, light levels were changed at the recorded performances. Singers were required to "act" in a way that did not make them look for all the world like singing oaks on screen. The grand gesture that needed to be seen in the most distant rows of the upper balcony looked awful silly to the camera's eye. When the question "How is this production going to look in the house?" changes to "How is this production going to look when broadcast?" a sea change has occurred.

A televised opera also demands predictability. If the video script calls for Camera #2 to be on the lead soprano at Location X four bars into her aria, the shot is going to be ruined if she is standing four feet to the right of Location X at that precise moment. Spontaneity is not a desirable trait insofar as the camera man or director is concerned.

And perhaps more to the point, certain productions simply cannot work effectively on video. Those that depend in large measure for their success on an intricate play of light and shadow wither and die under the bright lights needed for visual recording. Abstract productions that depend upon atmospherics tend not to fare well in two dimensions. And productions that require layer upon layer of small details, worked out on different parts of the stage and on different visual planes simultaneously might work on a movie screen but simply cannot be effective on a smaller screen.

In short, beaming a radio broadcast from the stage of the opera house to the city and the world requires no change in the production, but a video transmission does. And to diminish the impact of the opera in the house in order to maximize the impact on screen is a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Although this is doubtless a great way to insure the support of Paul, it is a very risky way to run an opera company.