When Opera Livestreams Became Live Performances

When Opera Livestreams Became Live Performances

I should start with a confession: Rarely during the pandemic have I been able to watch an entire livestream through.

Work is one thing: If I’m “attending” something for an assignment, I try to bring to it the focus of a before-times performance — phone off, sound system on, ideally in the dark. But nearly all my extracurricular experiences online have been nothing like my old days off. I would never walk in and out of Carnegie Hall during a recital or pull out my phone mid-Schubert to scroll through Instagram or write an email.

Yet that’s exactly what the past year and a half has been like. Life and livestreams are inherently incompatible; there is always a dog to walk, a dinner to cook, a meeting to join. I have seen the greatest musical artists in the world in fragments from the seat of a Peloton; in a small window at the corner of a laptop screen; and, more times than I would like to admit, in bed.

If anything has been likely to hold my attention from start to finish, it’s opera. That’s partly baked into the form; concerts, for all their recent engineering feats, generally can’t offer the multisensory experience of theater. And, miraculously, there have continued to be new productions during the pandemic — mostly in Europe, where they often premiered to small audiences or empty houses.

Three of those — Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging of Weber’s “Der Freischütz,” Marina Abramovic’s project “7 Deaths of Maria Callas” and a production of Strauss’s “Elektra” by Krzysztof Warlikowski — were at one point available only as online streams for Americans like me, barred from casually traveling to most of Europe.

But this summer, a halcyon time of reopened borders and the return of large-scale productions in full houses, I was able to see all three again, now in person: “Freischütz” and “7 Deaths” at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, and “Elektra” at the Salzburg Festival in Austria.

That juxtaposition — livestream and live performance — is worth reflecting on as a wave of opening nights heralds the arrival of a new season; as international travel becomes newly precarious; and as orchestras and opera houses consider whether to weave livestreams into their regular programming.

Some projects, it should be said, have emerged independent of any live audience or presentation — even traditional ones, such as the Paris Opera’s new production of Verdi’s “Aida,” which was altered to look better online than in the house (where critics were invited to see it, and mostly panned it). One of the great treasures of the pandemic has been Opera Philadelphia’s digital shorts, with contributions from the likes of Angélica Negrón and Tyshawn Sorey. Boston Lyric Opera developed “Desert In” as a mini-series, bringing the art form into the Netflix era.

The productions I saw both onscreen and onstage, though, were conceived for the opera house. Opera just isn’t a filmic medium, even if certain composers anticipated it — such as Richard Wagner, with the immersive theatrical experience he pioneered in Bayreuth, Germany.

But not every composer is Wagner, and although the streamed productions I later saw live had flashes of revelation, those moments were few and far between in what was, on balance, limited by the medium: the subjective and inevitably narrow perspective of the camera, the engineered flattening of sound. Virtual opera, unless designed as such, is ultimately just a document.

Especially in a staging as acutely dramatic as Tcherniakov’s “Freischütz.” It abandons the work’s fantasy Romanticism, setting it in the corporate penthouse of Kuno, a chief executive who behaves like a Mafia boss.

The other roles, too, bear little resemblance to any traditional production. To bridge the gap between libretto and concept, the stage is treated as a split screen, with the set occupying the bottom half and the top serving as a surface for projected text messages — and, during the overture, background information on each character in Tcherniakov’s treatment. (The camera mostly shows either the set or the projection, rarely both, which in the final scene makes for a confusing resolution that is easily legible in the house.)

Crucially, the introductions reveal that Kaspar — in the libretto a jealous rival of the protagonist, Max, he wants to marry Kuno’s daughter, Agathe — suffers from a trauma that, we later learn, manifests as a kind of multiple personality disorder. (He also takes on the demonic role of Samiel.)

As sung by the bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, Kaspar is the opera’s horrifying black heart. In a crowd of excellent performances — including Golda Schultz’s heavenly Agathe and her character’s Sapphic subplot with Anna Prohaska’s Ännchen — it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes off the fierce and angular intensity of Ketelsen’s face.

A viewer of the livestream wouldn’t necessarily get that. The score’s focus in its climax is on Max, and the camera follows, with a close-up of the tenor Pavel Cernoch’s fright and anguish. In the theater, however, I could see that Ketelsen’s scowl was more pronounced than ever — a sign that the opera’s traditionally happy ending would here be anything but.

Also at the Bavarian State Opera, Abramovic’s “7 Deaths” — which pays homage to Callas through seven arias and a prolonged final scene that imagines that famed soprano’s final day — worked better as a livestream, because it worked so intermittently as a live performance. With in-person singers accompanying big-screen videos of Abramovic and Willem Dafoe artfully acting out death scenes inspired by the arias, the piece relegates opera to mere soundtrack.

Abramovic is an undeniably electric presence. But the scale of the opera house — the vast distance it can put between a performer and audience member — negates much of the charged intimacy on which she has built her career as a performance artist. At least the livestream of the work’s premiere allowed for a proper zoom on every facial expression and gesture — while also reducing her to just an image on a screen, less powerful than she can be at her best.

In Salzburg, Warlikowski’s “Elektra” — using the breadth of the unusually wide Felsenreitschule stage — was almost defiantly unfilmable, with multiple parts of the set in use nearly all the time. The opening credits of the streamed version doubled as a tour of the whole space: a pool (where Elektra’s father, Agamemnon, was murdered) and showers, as well as a glass box filled with luxurious furniture and the vast rock walls of the theater, a canvas for projections.

These close-ups presage the limits of the filmed production, in which the camera tends to focus on only one thing at a time, with wide shots largely reserved for the eventually blood-splattered, fly-swarmed walls. The stream did catch chilling details I missed in the theater: Klytämnestra, for example, commanding as sung by Tanja Ariane Baumgartner but easy to miss in a silent moment of handling human organs in a bucket inside the glass box. Or Ausrine Stundyte’s Elektra, wide-eyed and wild-haired from the start, yet progressively more so each time she appears onscreen.

But “Elektra” is a musically dense, busy opera that Warlikowski matches in his staging, while the camera lacks the restlessness of a spectator’s eye. The only perspective that would accurately reflect the production would be a wide, straight-on view of the stage — something you might find in the research archive of Broadway shows at the New York Library for the Performing Arts.

That problem pales, though, in comparison with the sound of the streamed “Elektra.” I like to believe the story that, ahead of the opera’s 1909 premiere, Strauss told the conductor: “Louder, louder! I can still hear the singers!” Franz Welser-Möst led the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg as if that were true (if with a little more of a level head). At its best, this score overwhelms and terrifies. On a laptop, however, it was simply too balanced, with singers and instrumentalists favored equally; no one came out better for it.

As Europe again considers whether to close its borders to Americans, and as live performances remain more of a delicate triumph than a given, new productions may return to the small screen. If that happens, I’ll tune in. But I’d rather see you at the opera house. Because this “Freischütz,” “7 Deaths” and “Elektra” affirmed what we already knew: Fundamentally, opera is theater. That couldn’t be more obvious, or more essential.

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