Staging the Backstage at Carmen, Live in HD
I had arrived at the Metropolitan Opera stage door as instructed—10:30 a.m. on Saturday, January 16, 2010—but apparently we were already running late.1 Marisa and I quickly made our way to the stage, where the dry run for the opening segments and intermission features of the afternoon's high-definition broadcast of Carmen was well under way. Marisa was more precisely Marisa Biaggi, a Princeton musicology PhD who, after finishing her degree,2 took a position with the Met's Creative Content division, the team responsible for producing and promoting the spectacularly successful Live in HD broadcasts. For several years Marisa had been my point of contact and fact-checker for my academic interest in the HD initiative; after several years of learning about the broadcasts secondhand, I inquired about the possibility of shadowing her and her colleagues during an actual broadcast. After some discussion of scheduling, they settled on the Carmen performance as a good day for me to visit.
My official status was that of a member of the press (General Manager Peter Gelb himself signed off on my being there), but I saw my job for the day as more ethnographic than journalistic. Who made the broadcasts happen, and how? More specifically, what went into the “special features” of the broadcasts (artist interviews, backstage access, historical montages) that made these performance events different from other mediatized opera?3 As an arts management veteran, friend of Marisa's, and somewhat avid fan of the broadcasts, I could hardly call myself a complete outsider, but I still hoped to cast a reasonably objective eye on the proceedings.
By the time Marisa and I made it to the stage, slightly out of breath, everything was up and running, with stagehands and other Met personnel efficiently making their way to and fro to prepare for the 1 p.m. curtain. For Marisa and her colleagues, however, all attention was focused on the day's broadcast host, Renée Fleming. Renée (as everyone called her, and as I'll dare to call her in this essay) was dressed in a smart light brown pantsuit, her hair still damp—she would have time for hair and makeup after the run-through, I was told. She showed no signs of fatigue, despite having sung the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier the evening before alongside Susan Graham and Christine Schäfer. I felt worn out just having sat in the audience the previous evening (a happenstance not intended to coincide with my day backstage), but I silently chastised myself upon realizing that I'd spent significantly more time away from the opera house in the last twenty-four hours than Renée, who at least this weekend seemed to merit the mantle of Hardest Working Woman in Opera.
I've been a more or less enthusiastic follower of the HD transmissions since their inception in the 2006–07 season and have attended over a dozen broadcasts. I've been to several in downtown Chicago (I Puritani and Hansel and Gretel) and one in the outer suburb of Woodridge, Illinois (Eugene Onegin). I've seen five at two different theaters in central New Jersey, including the 2008 live broadcast of opening night (in which Renée starred in a triple bill of scenes from Traviata, Manon, and Capriccio), complete with red-carpet arrivals and, memorably, Martha Stewart mixing cocktails with Susan Graham at intermission (and, oddly, Rufus Wainwright lurking in the background, apparently trying to sneak into the camera shot).
Since my first HD broadcast, I've been in equal measures intrigued and troubled by the special features of the experience, and I am similarly ambivalent about the larger narrative that the Met, under the direction of Peter Gelb, has created to frame the broadcasts more generally—namely, that they will help save opera from otherwise inevitable obsolescence in the age of new media. This underlying narrative has been reproduced in hundreds if not thousands of journalistic accounts, which seldom fail to mention the broadcasts' special features.4 Fortunately these two aspects of the HD broadcasts were featured prominently, in nearly paradigmatic fashion, for a preview of the January 16 Carmen broadcast by the local television show This Week in Telluride. The following exchange between host Jeb Berrier and Heather Rommel (of the Palm Theater in Telluride, Colorado, where the HD broadcasts are presented) was exemplary in its almost word-for-word adherence to the Met's talking points:
The fact that this introduction did not come directly from the Met itself, but rather from a locally produced news show, makes the report even more emblematic of the success of the HD initiative and Peter Gelb's public relations savvy. Perhaps the most significant selling point of the HD broadcasts—at the time of this writing, halfway through their fifth season—has been their ability to reach far-flung audiences, with the geographically remote town of Telluride as a perfect case in point. In Jeb Berrier's self-corrected faux pas in nearly calling the HD broadcasts better than the real thing, we can almost hear Gelb himself speaking: by all means, come to the Met in person, but if you can't, come to the HD broadcasts, and we'll make up for your not being there, whether through the magic of “numerous robotic cameras” or special intermission features—all for about twenty dollars a ticket, less than the going rate for standing room tickets at the Met itself.
Back at the Met, everyone working backstage had already heard the good news about the afternoon's broadcast before the curtain went up: it would be the most successful HD event to date, in terms of gross attendance, the number of participating movie theaters, and, presumably, income. Although the fact that Carmen would set such a record might come as no surprise, this crowd- and box office–pleasing staple has had a surprisingly rocky history at the Met. In 1915, when an indisposed Enrico Caruso bowed out of two Carmen performances, his ill-prepared replacements performed so appallingly that Arturo Toscanini withdrew from the remaining run and returned to Italy, never to conduct at the Met again.6 The two most recent productions had hardly fared better. The 1986 Carmen starring Maria Ewing and directed by her then husband Peter Hall came in for resounding criticism, with even the affable Liz Smith remarking on the opening night performance that “dinner beforehand was the best part of the evening. But the opera itself—deliver us.” After being replaced for the telecast, an outraged Ewing went to the press to tell of her purported betrayal by James Levine.7 The Met's 1996 Carmen had been similarly marred by backstage infighting and public recriminations, fueled by antagonism between an increasingly unglued Franco Zeffirelli and a frustrated and perhaps miscast Waltraud Meier.8 The 2009–10 Carmen had all but exorcised these recent demons, with a festive New Year's Eve premiere and a warm reception by reviewers and audiences in advance of the January broadcast. Directed by Richard Eyre and conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the production starred Roberto Alagna as Don José and the alluring mezzo Elīna Garanča in the title role, along with choreography by Christopher Wheeldon.9
My working hypothesis going into this day of fieldwork was relatively simple: I was convinced that the broadcast's special features must be as scripted as the opera itself, and that they were so closely integrated that there really wasn't a line between the opera production itself and the special features. Moreover, these special features were in service less to the opera than to the Opera—that is, the Metropolitan Opera. In a previous study of the broadcasts, I had settled on the term “institutional dramaturgy” to label the object of my fascination and consternation. By this I mean the techniques by which the Met, or any institution, stages itself for the public, whether through the semiosis of marketing and public relations or by more literally engaging in self-documentary in the case of the framing features of the HD broadcasts. I also expected my observations to reaffirm on a more literal and ethnographic level Philip Auslander's claims about the conceptual indivisibility of live and mediatized performance.10 Indeed, it's just such an indivisibility that is the premise of the Met's talking points about an HD transmission: it's not the same as the live opera but the next best thing and, in certain respects, even better than the real thing (as Jeb Berrier alluded to in his previously quoted remarks).
Above and beyond this simple hypothesis about the coordination of the opera performance with the broadcast frame, however, what became immediately evident during my day backstage was an aesthetic innovation on a larger scale, one tied closely to the economics of opera production. Unlike previous instances of opera on-screen, or the ever-expanding availability of opera on DVD, the Met's HD broadcasts are explicitly invested in foregrounding the site and means of operatic production. They do the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk one better by foregrounding instead of hiding the means of operatic production, allowing us to delight more explicitly in the extravagance of opera's production, above and beyond what we hear and see on stage. We may have always known that there were two thousand people working backstage at the Met, but now we can see many of them for ourselves. In this sense a new, even more Nietzschean term (Übergesamtkunstwerk?) would perhaps describe the broadcasts more adequately.11
If Wagner missed such an opportunity and, indeed, would probably have been horrified at such antics, having considered even the orchestra unfit for viewing by the audience, the Met seems ready to make up for lost time. The expansion of the HD broadcasts to the realm of the backstage is not merely a question of aesthetics, but is also closely tied to the economics of the broadcasts. In fact, to allude to Nietzsche or Wagner might in fact be giving the operation too much credit; instead we might consider the backstage features as a more straightforward manifestation of a market-friendly neoliberal disposition. The institutional dramaturgy of the Met's broadcasts serves not primarily to heighten the opera experience but rather, in the terms of current business parlance, to “monetize” the backstage. By breaking down the fourth wall and making “creative content” out of what otherwise would languish behind the scenes, the Met has made a fiscal virtue out of the costly apparatus of opera production. What for the past four hundred years of opera's history was pure expense—ropes and sandbags, wigs and makeup, lights and sets, and the massive human resources necessary to put them into action—now becomes part of the show, instead of just costing millions of dollars.12
By the same token, the Met still takes pains to remind you of how special the talent is onstage, and not always in the subtlest manner. In marketing materials for the 2009–10 season, the Rosenkavalier roster—featuring the dream team of Fleming, Graham, and Schäfer, with the added bonus of Ramón Vargas as the Italian Singer—was referred to in one memorable blurb as “luxury casting,” as though these performers were comparable to leather seats in a BMW. Hearing these three women sing the final trio of Rosenkavalier may well be “priceless,” but does the Met need to talk about Strauss in the same way? And speaking of Strauss, it should be noted that the 2010–11 Met HD season happily featured the metaexperience broadcasts of two “backstage operas,” Ariadne auf Naxos and Capriccio.
To monetize the backstage of the Met is not something to do on the fly, and I found my hunch about the scriptedness of the special features confirmed almost the moment that I was fetched from the stage door by Marisa. When we arrived onstage not just Renée but by my reckoning a full forty people were hard at work to execute the broadcast features alone. From the Creative Content staff (Marisa and her colleagues) there were six individuals, responsible for everything from finalizing the script to preparing Renée's wardrobe to ordering lunch, and none of them so much as touched a microphone or cable. Those responsible for the numerous cameras, lights, and teleprompters needed for the special features numbered around thirty, moving with smooth efficiency to the understated but firm directives of their producer.
The Creative Content team had sent Renée her remarks in advance, but all of the rehearsal took place that morning. Even with such limited preparation time, the script remained fluid, with Renée requesting small edits to make her remarks and questions flow more naturally. To ensure proper pronunciation, certain words were written out phonetically (for instance, “Newbauer” in lieu of “Neubauer,” one of the broadcast sponsors). For the previous broadcast (of Rosenkavalier) host Plácido Domingo had requested that the “dot” in a website address be written out; Renée asked for it to be changed back to a period. Thanks to state-of-the-art digital teleprompters, such last-minute changes were easily made on the spot, the age of cue cards having long passed.
The efficiency and professionalism of the operation were even more apparent on this particular morning, due to an instance of that classic set piece of backstage drama, the day-of-performance cast change. Mariusz Kwiecień, originally cast as Escamillo, had withdrawn owing to illness, to be replaced by Teddy Tahu Rhodes. In the four years of HD broadcasts, this was the first same-day substitution of a major cast member, a testament perhaps to the pull of these particular performance opportunities for singers, especially since a role in the transmission now all but guarantees an appearance in the subsequent DVD, as was the case with Rhodes. Rhodes's family and friends in New Zealand did not likely have enough notice to secure movie tickets to see him perform, but at the Met his participation was swiftly and seamlessly integrated into the broadcast plan.
After Kwiecień's cancellation had been confirmed (management had apparently been alerted to the possibility the evening before), I returned with Marisa to her office, where she phoned an on-call graphic designer who, just like Rhodes, was ready and available for just such a contingency, at home and at her computer in Brooklyn (although, unlike Rhodes, this designer was not being paid but was rather helping out as a friendly favor). Marisa selected and e-mailed a publicity photo so that it could be inserted into a replacement slide for the opening credits. In the meantime, her colleagues amended the intermission script to accommodate Rhodes's participation, highlighting the circumstances of his last-minute star turn. (In the performance, Rhodes completely hit the role out of the park; a star, or at least a big-league Escamillo, was born.)
The smoothness of the operation was by no means incidental. The preshow and intermission features were planned literally down to the second, with each line of text, camera cue, and visual segue carefully scripted and timed. Marisa handed me three separate but interconnected documents to help me follow the proceedings—a “features timeline” listing the duties of the Met HD team in minute-by-minute format, a second-by-second “rundown” of the camera cues, and a fully written out “HD script” with all of Renée's text. What was remarkable was the way in which the teams seemed to work almost independently of one another, despite the close relationship between their duties. The Creative Content team was constantly shuttling about, attending primarily to the people involved in the features. Above all this meant taking care of Renée, but also smaller details such as seeing that Yannick Nézet-Séguin had a towel and water ready after exiting the pit, or ensuring that a stylist named Nancy—specially engaged for the day to do on-the-spot hair and makeup for everyone going on camera—had arrived and found her way to the stage. All the while the camera crew concerned itself with the execution of the shots. Into this grid Renée skillfully delivered her prepared remarks and questions, which were already in their fifth draft when I arrived and would go through two more revisions in the course of the on-the-spot editing that morning, most substantially because of the last-minute cast change for Escamillo. According to one of the crew members, who was serving as a technical handler for Renée, the overall setup was comparable to the resources required for preshow coverage at the Emmys or Oscars—a careful alchemy of scrupulously planned spontaneity, not unlike operatic performance itself.
Such professionalism does not come cheap. The only element of the broadcasts for which the Met does not have to pay handsomely is, remarkably, Renée Fleming, who from the inception of the HD initiative has offered her skilled services as host free of charge. For everything else, however, the costs are considerable. Although Marisa did not hand me a detailed operating budget along with my scripts, it's not hard to see how the expenses quickly add up. Six full-time Met staff members devote their time to the broadcasts year round. One can only conjecture how much a member of the camera crew receives, but if these are the kind of people covering the red carpets of Hollywood, they aren't working at a discount just because it's opera.
Some of the figures that are publicly available, however, provide insight into how financial—and, by extension, institutional—priorities have changed under Gelb's management, most notably due to the HD broadcasts. Like all U.S.-based nonprofits, the Met must file and make publicly available a Form 990, a tax return that provides a summary of the previous year's financial activities. Line items on the 990 include both earned and contributed income and a breakdown of expenditures, including amounts for the highest paid individuals and contractors. In the returns for 2006, a new independent contractor began to appear among the top five listed on the Met's returns, namely All Mobile Video, with payments totaling $1,183,074.13 By 2007 All Mobile Video—which describes itself as “the country's premier provider of end-to-end video and audio solutions for entertainment, sports, and news programming and events”14—had climbed from the fifth highest paid contractor to the third highest, with total payments of $1,878,386. (This was more, incidentally, than Music Director James Levine's 2007 compensation of $1,659,805.) In 2008 its payments climbed to $2,386,354. In terms of demanding the highest fees, it seems that technology has indeed become prima donna assoluta at the Met.
On the revenue side, the Met's tax returns paint a similar picture of the institutional impact of the HD transmissions. Among the various categories of revenue listed on the 990, among the most significant is “program service revenue,” that is, money earned from the organization's core programmatic activities (distinct from investment income or fund-raising). In 2005 the Met reported just under $99 million in program service revenue from only two categories: $300,000 from radio and television broadcasts, and the rest from ticket sales. In 2006 the third category of HD broadcast income made its first appearance. This new income stream combined with significant new profits from satellite radio brought program service revenue to $109 million, with the two categories of HD and radio/television broadcasts accounting for roughly $2.4 million each.
By 2007 total program service revenue had reached almost $115 million. While radio income increased by a third over the previous year to almost $3.8 million, HD broadcast income brought in over $9 million, more than triple the amount of the previous year. In 2008 program service revenue reached almost $127 million, with nearly $22 million coming from the new category of “media broadcasts,” a combination of radio and movie income. All these statistics show in plain terms that the HD transmissions, along with the Met's enhanced media presence on satellite radio, constitute an increasingly large share of the organization's earned income. Whether we confer upon them the status of Übergesamtkunstwerk or label them as just plain monetizing, the Met's new media initiatives are big business.
Opera Is Dead; Long Live the Opera!
Opera has, it seems, entered the twenty-first century, enabling its fans to enjoy the same kinds of remote and more intimate access via mass media long enjoyed by pop music devotees, sports fans, and political junkies. On a more conceptual level, the HD transmissions seem an inevitable fulfillment of Philip Auslander's claims about the increasing indivisibility of live and mediatized forms of performance.15 Auslander's argument famously upends the purported primacy of the original event over its mediatized copies, arguing that the category of the “live” does not inhere ontologically in the act of performance but is rather a historical aftereffect of the mediatization of performance events. In other words, until there was a way of experiencing them via a medium that did not entail showing up at the “original” event in person, no one thought of them as “live” per se. If Gelb and the Met were not reading Auslander's work, they nevertheless seem to be taking him as their playbook. By sticking stubbornly to its quirky culture of “live only” performance, opera was, in effect, in danger of being rendered aesthetically and economically obsolete. Now, thanks to the Met's media-savvy interventions, opera will have another lease on life for decades to come.
That's how the Met's story goes. But within the larger context of the history of opera, the story gets more complicated, since opera has often been on the brink of complete ruin. Indeed, concerns about the viability of opera are as old as opera itself, and one could argue even further that these concerns are in fact something of a preexisting condition of the form, insofar as its initial practitioners viewed their efforts as a revival of the lost theatrical heritage of the ancients. The fact that such worries over opera's viability were present even, or perhaps especially, at opera's birth in the courts of seventeenth-century northern Italy reveals just how much the form has always been preoccupied with obsolescence. If opera was born out of anything, it was out of this very sense of its inevitable and always imminent demise. Hence the need every thirty or forty years for some large project of operatic renewal should come as no surprise—whether by the Arcadians, Gluck, Mozart and Da Ponte, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Strauss and Hofmannsthal, or John Adams and Peter Sellars. In our present time, especially, opera “wears its anachronism conspicuously,” as Heather Wiebe put it in a recent Opera Quarterly issue on the theme of obsolescence; most practitioners focus largely on a closed repertory of classics and cultivate a style of singing that is functionally no longer necessary in the age of amplification.16 It would stand to reason, then, that if opera has always been on its way out, then we shouldn't be worried about the specifics of Gelb's current efforts to save it from obsolescence: “Opera is dead; long live the opera!”
Such sentiments about opera's ontological fragility have perhaps most notably served as an oft-quoted point of departure for Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar's Opera's Second Death.17 Acknowledging the obsolescence inherent to opera, Žižek and Dolar exhort their readers to affirm and embrace this condition of the form. A “stillborn child of art,” opera should be cherished not despite its anachronistic values and allegedly “parasitic” reliance upon the related arts of music and theater, but precisely because of these conditions.18 “Instead of denying the charge,” they argue, “one should undermine it by radicalizing it: opera never was in accord with its time—from its very beginnings, it was perceived as something outdated, as a retroactive solution to a certain inherent crisis in music and as an impure art.”19
If Žižek and Dolar call for a radicalizing of our understanding of opera's aesthetic and cultural obsolescence, it's equally worth acknowledging, in a more literal Marxist vein, that this tragic sense of opera has always been implicitly intertwined with its economic obsolescence. In this sense, the Met's revenue statistics demonstrate a radicalizing of a different sort for opera: an apparent shift from fragile fiscal helplessness to hale corporate personhood. To state it more plainly: opera isn't supposed to make money like this. In fact, all the performing arts—opera, symphonic music, ballet and dance, and, to a lesser degree, theater—tend to get more expensive and thus less profitable over time, a phenomenon first identified by economists William Baumol and William Bowen, in appropriately operatic terms, as “cost disease.”20 By this theory (which has comparable applications for the fields of education and health care), the inherent economic problem with the performing arts is that it takes the same number of people to play a Beethoven symphony or to perform Carmen today as it did fifty or a hundred years ago. As fixed costs inexorably rise—most notably, human resources—we generally can't just add seats to our concert halls and opera houses to make up the difference. We also can't raise ticket prices to keep up with the demand, since this would price too many people out of attending. Instead, subsidies must increasingly make up the difference, either in the form of state support (in the European model) or private fund-raising (in the U.S. context).21 Within the fact that “cost disease” is the economic and institutional condition of opera writ large lies another answer to the question of why the opera stage is so littered with sick and dying (female) bodies. Like Violetta or Mimì, opera hardly had a fighting chance to begin with. In slightly more optimistic but condescending terms, it resembles a weak child that must be continually coddled and coaxed back to health—if not stillborn, then perilously premature.
But, in fact, maybe opera is supposed to make money like this, or at the very least the business of opera has been adapting to meet changing economic and social circumstances from its earliest decades. Some might align the launch of HD broadcasts in 2006 with the 400th anniversary of the premiere of Orfeo in 1607; but the broadcasts also look ahead to a quadricentennial some twenty years ahead of us, that is, the anniversary of opera's second birth in the public theaters of Venice in the 1630s. For the institutional roots of opera as we experience it today, at the Met or anywhere else, we can really only go back to Venice. As Lorenzo Bianconi explains, “only with the opening of these first public theaters was opera transformed from its original condition as a curious and somewhat ephemeral episode in the life of a handful of early seventeenth-century Italian courts to its subsequent position as an enduring and historically relevant ‘institution.’”22 No one claims that in making this transition from the aristocratic court to the more market-driven environment of the public theater—what Nino Pirrotta memorably dubbed “Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi”23—the operas themselves did not emerge unchanged. “The process of commercialization,” Bianconi argues, “is by no means a superficial manner from which the original material emerges unscathed; on the contrary, the very structure of the dramatic entertainment is necessarily affected by changes in its reasons for production, means of ‘consumption’ and forms of transmission and tradition.”24
In this sense, by collaborating with the likes of All Mobile Video and the NCM (National CineMedia) Fathom network of live broadcast entertainment, the Met is doing what opera has always done—changing and adapting to meet new institutional and economic circumstances. If Monteverdi, the father of opera, could do it, why shouldn't we? Opera is simply changing in the same way that it did when it was first transplanted from the exclusive court to the public sphere.25Orfeo and L'incoronazione di Poppea are very different kinds of music theater, and they quite obviously bear the traces of their divergent origins at court and in the public theater, but we wouldn't trade one for the other. To make opera viable outside of court, composers and producers had to make changes to almost every aspect of their business, including changing the very nature of the opera text itself. By taking Carmen from the opera house and putting it in a movie theater, the Met is making opera into something different, albeit just a little different. This is still opera. Or is it?
The problem is that all the theoretical, historical, institutional, economic, and ethnographic justifications and explanations of the Met's initiative fail to put to rest a collection of more primal (and admittedly autobiographical) nagging questions, which I have wrestled with consciously and unconsciously ever since I attended my first HD broadcast in February 2007.26 If the transmissions are in the end no big deal, at least in terms of the large-scale history of opera, why do I always feel an overwhelming sense of melancholy both during and after? Why do I feel like I'm cheating on opera?
I tell myself yes, this is not the way opera is supposed to be, but it's all right, because I still go to see live opera. I'd never become one of those people who only went to the movies for their Verdi. And more opera is more opera, even if it's in a movie theater, right? After all, this admittedly mass-produced version of opera is still profoundly countercultural, and most of the audience is there for the “right” reason, that is, because what we really love is the real thing. When there is an Angelina Jolie blockbuster playing in the theater next door, a five-hour broadcast of Don Carlo feels like an act of principled cultural transgression, not a paltry Baudrillardian simulacrum. But then again, how will it feel to tell my grandchildren that I saw my first Don Carlo at the Regal Cinema in South Brunswick, New Jersey? This is all fun and games, but does it really count?
HD broadcast attendance—like radio or television broadcast participation in previous ages—in some ways might be the current true operatic badge of honor, or at least it would seem to earn one membership in a sodality more elite than the Met's in-person audience.27 This is the remote and unabashedly mediated devotion so lovingly experienced and chronicled by Wayne Koestenbaum—love that loves despite the vagaries of the curves of the needle and the rarity and perhaps impossibility of actual encounter.28 With the HD broadcasts, this sense of the self-appointed elect seems alive and well. W. Anthony Sheppard remarks about the HD screening of Tan Dun's The First Emperor in December 2006 that it was the remote audience that seemed to take the proceedings more seriously than the live viewers, at least insofar as he and his fellow HD viewers remained to applaud for the duration of the ovations, even as they could see members of the live audience beating a hasty retreat to the cab stand and parking garage.29 “At the start we may well have felt ‘presence envy,’” he notes, “as we watched the Met audience arrive in the house. However, by the end we appeared satisfied with the uniqueness of our own performance event.”30
Anyone who has attended an HD broadcast and has talked at any length with fellow audience members has quickly discovered that most people there are indeed not opera newcomers but rather the already initiated. Although the HD broadcasts are perhaps more accessible to the nonexpert—since they take away the anxiety-inducing experience of “going to the opera” and the attendant social rituals (“What should I wear?” “When do I clap?”)—it's important to remember that, Gelb's populist rhetoric aside, the broadcasts are still a niche product. I recently asked a culturally savvy but opera-neutral friend (that is, someone with no apparent antioperatic predispositions) whether he'd like to come along to an upcoming broadcast. His response was enthusiastic, but also revealing of the true reach of the HD initiative: “You know, I always see the ads for those and wonder, ‘Who on earth goes to those things?’”
One person who would certainly not line up for a broadcast is almost too obvious to mention: Theodor Adorno. In his signature indictment, “Bourgeois Opera,” Adorno called out the form for its aristocratic pretensions, observing with negative hindsight that the genre has much more in common with the mass medium of film than it might admit.31 Thus a Butterfly or Leonora on the big screen of a suburban cineplex, where eager opera drones line up for a mass-produced and deeply discounted version of their beloved middle-class morality tales, would by all means appall Adorno but certainly not take him by surprise. By thoroughly embedding itself in the culture and economy of contemporary Hollywood cinema, opera in the form of the Met's HD transmissions is merely the depressingly predictable fate of this most overstuffed and artificial of media, the final consummation of its long-standing and intimate alliance with the culture industry.
To be hailed by Adorno for insufficiently rigorous taste is to join a large and, if I may say, quite distinguished club, but it still stings. And it doesn't help matters when I hear another voice, this one from the more recent school of performance studies, asking me why on earth I would participate in something as hackneyed as the Met's HD broadcasts. Here I'm thinking of Peggy Phelan, who famously laid down the gauntlet of what counts as performance, in staunch opposition to media apologias such as Auslander's: “Performance's only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology.”32
Yes, of course, but can't I have it both ways? I completely concur that performance is first and foremost live and unique, but isn't some kind of opera better than no opera at all? Or at least, if I promise to go to live opera, can I have permission to go the HD broadcasts? What's a suburban opera queen to do?
This anxiety isn't just personal and is in fact grounded in fiscal reality and management philosophy. Interestingly, Phelan's polemical stance finds an implicit if more practically minded corollary in the economic ontology of performing arts nonprofits. As previously noted, the root cause of “cost disease” is the nonreproducibility of live classical music, opera, dance, and theater. By definition we can't “scale” these products the way we could a book or film, and it doesn't take a Karl Marx or Jack Welch to realize out that, without reproducibility, it's well nigh impossible to monetize. If the very ontology of performing arts nonprofits is to curate both aesthetically and economically obsolescent art forms, one can argue that it's the degree to which they resist incorporation within our market-driven cultural industries that makes them so important, and worth working harder and harder to produce decade after decade. By this token, it seems that with the HD broadcasts I am cheating on opera, at least if I start to choose the mediatized and monetized version over the real thing.
But what of the Carmen performance itself? My press status did not entitle me to a ticket in the house but instead granted me access to the infinitely more edifying venue of the green room, where I watched the HD broadcast along with the covers and other personnel and guests, about as insider a crowd as one could imagine. The atmosphere was irreverent and garrulous, if not to say arch—a kind of operatic version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, or a Brechtian paradise of expert participatory spectatorship—and not at all dampened by the fact that Renée herself was in the room for the first two acts (she would join Gelb in his box for the second half, after her intermission duties were complete). The fact that Rhodes had gotten his big break for the day's broadcast doubtless contributed to the festive mood, but whatever the cause, no one was shy about sharing their observations on how the HD transmissions have changed opera at the Met. These insights could be summed up by one singer's priceless quip that “you can't see that in the Family Circle.” This particular remark emerged in response to a lascivious flick of the tongue by Carmen at the hapless Don José, a detail that would have certainly gone unnoticed in the upper balconies if not the prime parterre, but which was on full display for us and tens of thousands of other remote audience members worldwide.
Similarly, in the opening scene of the production, the cigarette girls emerged from the factory through a door in the stage floor, arranging themselves in a large oval along the periphery. A collective groan emerged from everyone, but especially the women, as the camera lingered a bit too long and bit too up close on a chorus member's bare leg, in effect taking over a third of the screen for what seemed an eternity. As one of the ladies put it, “Oh my God, I would die.” (I regrettably did not muster the courage to ask Renée whether she might be adding a “no bare legs” rider to her HD broadcast contracts.)
It would be stretching it to call a few sexed-up gestures either an operatic revolution or a signal of opera's imminent demise. But it's hard to imagine Marilyn Horne leaping on and off of a table and wagging her tongue during the séguedille like Elīna Garanča. And Garanča would not be acting the way she did without the “numerous robotic cameras” dancing at her feet, ready and able to pick up such small gestures for immediate digital distribution. What is this that we're really watching? Is this how our generation plans to reinvent opera?
In any case, we would be naive to take Gelb too much at his word, or at his word as ventriloquized by the media personalities of Telluride. For the HD broadcasts aren't necessarily bringing about an utter revolution in operatic culture. The population of Telluride may in fact be comparable to the number of people working backstage at the Met, but that analogy, like most, belies the larger truth. Telluride is not Small Town USA but rather a ritzy ski resort: more an exclusive Mantuan court than a raucous Venetian metropolis, much less a run-of-the-mill American city such as my hometown of Tulsa.33 The people crowding the Palm Theater for the Carmen broadcast were more likely than average to have season tickets for the Met itself, so if this is outreach to new audiences, it's outreach of a particularly exclusive and targeted sort, perhaps merely off season. And it's still largely thanks to the eight-figure largesse of the likes of Mercedes Bass and Ann Ziff that any of us—from Telluride to Tulsa—get to experience the Met in any format, live or mediatized. Opera has always relied on elite patronage, so why not just sit back and relax? More opera is more opera, right? But what will it mean for opera in a place such as Tulsa? Will people still come out for a Carmen production in person (as I did my senior year of high school), when the slicker, sexier, direct-from-Lincoln Center version is available at the mall for a mere $20?
I'd like to close with one final analogy, prompted by lessons learned during our country's long march out of the Great Recession. Thanks to Alex Ross's recent expedition to explore “Opera on the Plains,” I was tickled to learn that the Carmen whom I saw at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center in October 1999 was none other than Stephanie Blythe.34 I can't say that I remember anything specific about her performance, but it clearly helped get me hooked on opera and was one of many regional gigs that would prove crucial for her development as a singer. But what if there had been HD broadcasts of opera back then? And what if, as a result of changes in supply and demand, there had been no Tulsa Opera for Blythe to sing with? I might have seen a more polished production with a more seasoned Carmen and have still been bit by the opera bug, but would Blythe have made her way to the Met to triumph in Handel, Gluck, Verdi, and Wagner?
As we have relearned in the past few years, it's not always wise to place all our collective trust and resources in the care of large national institutions, since once they become “too big to fail,” we're all on the hook to clean up the messes they leave behind. Regional opera companies in the United States may not be as flashy and sexy as the Met—although, as Ross's reporting revealed, they can be exactly those things as well—but they are the bedrock of the larger culture of opera in the United States. And if the Met were ever to collapse, or merely decide at some point that HD broadcasts are no longer viable, where would that leave us? Given our country's meager record of public-sector support for the arts, it's hard to imagine that an opera bailout would be readily forthcoming from Congress. If the Met is our operatic Wachovia or Countrywide, boldly breaking new organizational ground with unforeseen consequences, we might equally value companies such as Tulsa and Kansas City as our credit unions, dutifully going about their business without high-profile marketing campaigns or expensive technological interventions. As patrons of large multinational banks have learned recently, there is increasingly no such thing as free checking, and as a result many disgruntled customers are taking their business back to their tried-and-true locally based institutions, whichtend to be less concerned with maximizing revenue and more focused on customers' day-to-day needs.
It would be foolhardy to take the analogy too far and argue that the Met's new media initiatives are the credit default swaps and subprime mortgages of the opera world, recklessly leading a whole industry into certain ruin. And we can't lay all the blame for opera's woes at the feet of Peter Gelb; indeed, without innovations such as the HD broadcasts, regional opera might well have faded into a state of neglected obsolescence on its own. But at the same time, in our zeal to rediscover opera through the easy access of the digital cloud, we should also take care to tend opera on the ground, since stars such as Stephanie Blythe are not going to be discovered and nurtured by viral YouTube clips or Facebook campaigns. So, by all means, go see an HD broadcast, but make sure that there's something else to fall back on when and if they're no longer around. Myself, I'll keep splitting my operagoing between the stadium seating of the AMC in Hamilton, New Jersey, and whatever tickets I can rustle up at Lincoln Center. I can't seem to give up on either.