From the very get-go, my experience of watching San Francisco Opera’s production of Puccini’s La Rondine on April 7, 2010 in High Definition Digital at the Kabuki Theater was different than my experiences with the Met Live in HD and Emerging Pictures’ opera-movies. When I went on line to make a reservation to watch this 2009production, I saw that I bought reserved specific seat locations, unlike the Met’s Live in HD presentations that were general seating. Just like watching opera live in the opera house, I didn’t have to worry about sold out houses or coming early to get the best seat. The Kabuki, recently renovated as part of Sundance Cinemas, is a ‘luxury’ movie theater with plush, rock-back seats, gourmet food selections and reserved seating. Yet, the price for watching the opera was $14, significantly less than the Met charges. The second surprise was a San Francisco Opera staff member at a table outside the screen entrance, who handed out a synopsis and an evaluation form. Clearly, the San Francisco Opera wanted feedback from their customers to use in future promotions.
The first thing I noticed in the sold-out theater (the audience was aged, largely between 40 and death, including this writer) was that the size of the screen was smaller than the normal movie theater screen. When the film started the big surprise was the incredible clarity of the digital picture: a level of brilliance that made colors more vivid, blacks blacker and details matter. I have never experienced this level of clarity in any movie theater! Whether the reason was the smaller screen (making the images clearer) or the digital recording and/or screening method was unknown. For the first few minutes there was a lack of color in the images; everything was a pale green. Then, the colors came on and the beauty of the art deco sets became obvious in a way that a live performance could never match, no matter how close to the stage one sat. The sound was adequate but it was not surround, as it came from the screen, although there were speakers on each of the sides of the auditorium that could have transmitted surround sound.
When I interviewed Jessica Coplos, Director of Electronic Media for the San Francisco Opera, for an article, “Live Opera-Movies, A Vital New Art Form,”http://www.sfcv.org/article/live-opera-moviesbra-vital-new-art-form for San Francisco Classical Voice, she told me that Operavision (their name for live digital transmission of the performance) gave balcony audiences a close-up view of the action by placing two small screens in the balcony. They also did not want the cameras to interfere with the performers or the main floor audience. As a result, the cameras filmed the opera from one level above the stage, providing ample close-ups and distance shots, but preventing the more creative shots from ground level (looking up at the performers) and precluding the moving shots that robotic cameras make possible. While the limited camera angles never impeded the view of the action and provided the close-up shots that makes opera-movies a new experience, I missed the added drama that more flexible camera angles and movements provide. After all, it’s the quick editing of multiple camera angles that makes opera at the movies a new art form.
The one intermission of 20 minutes was clearly announced from the screen and allowed patrons to purchase refreshments and stretch their legs. It was at this time that a video camera was positioned outside the screening room door and gave members of the audience a chance to comment on the opera-movie experience. When I had completed my interview, I returned to my seat, and, to my surprise, found some interviews with the performers and artistic personnel showing on the screen. But I couldn’t hear them talk because the volume level was so low that the patron’s chatter drowned out the interviews. It would be much better to do the interviews at the same volume levels as the opera before the intermission, so those wishing to stay could hear them and enjoy the insights that can enhance the opera-movie experience.
My two companions and I enjoyed the opera and found it to be a different experience from the live performance. I did attend the live performance of La Rondine last year, but the ability of the camera to show the singing and acting up close resulted in a more memorable dramatic, musical and emotional experience than the live performance. On the other hand, I appreciated the SFO’s efforts to make the best use of their extensive videos of their performances. Please, show this season’s brilliant performance of Strauss’ Salome, and I’m there in a second!