The National Centre for Performing Arts started a wonderful arrangement with the National Theatre, London a couple of years ago by which we could see the NT’s plays while sitting in the NCPA’s Godrej Theatre in a live high definition broadcast. Of course, given the time difference between England and India, the broadcast was deferred live, but give or take a few hours, we were watching some of the greatest contemporary plays at the same time as theatre-goers in London. We paid Rs 500; Londoners paid Rs 9,000. And we got in without too much trouble, while what most Londoners saw of the plays were its house full signs.
A few months ago, NCPA started a similar arrangement for opera with the world’s best opera company, the Metropolitan Opera of New York, popularly called the Met. For one reason or another, I have been missing their screenings, but last week I managed to see Verdi’s Aida. The work was written for the opening of the Opera House in Cairo according to some sources, or according to others, to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal. So naturally, Verdi chose an Egyptian theme, one going back to the time of the Pharaohs. The first performance was on December 24, 1871.
Briefly stated, the theme is about – what else? – tragic love. Radames is the Egyptian war hero in love with the captured Ethiopian princess Aida, while Princess Amneris, daughter of the Pharaoh, is in love with him, so his love for Aida is predictably doomed. Aida’s arias ‘Ritorna vincitor!’ and ‘Oh, patria mia’, as well as Radames’ ‘Celeste Aida’ are famous. But the best known is the Grand March, which incidentally, was sung at Verdi’s funeral years later. (A footnote: a special trumpet, called the Aida trumpet, as much as 6 feet 6 inches long, was specially made to add to the spectacle of Aida’s famous military parade).
And ‘spectacle’ is where I have a problem with filmed opera. Years ago I saw Aida at London’s Covent Garden, something that has stayed in my memory for so many years, not for its stars or their voices, but because of the magnificent staging. The Met’s Aida has that too: huge sets, massive statues of the pharaohs and a grand march featuring many horses and horse — drawn carriages. Imagine seeing all that on the stage! It would leave you (as it did me at Covent Garden), absolutely awestruck. But film that and you are now subconsciously comparing filmed stage spectacle with movies containing special effects and animation (think Avatar, Star Wars, Titanic). What looks staggering on a theatre stage looks ordinary when transferred to the screen.
Add to that the closeups of the singers. When you are in Covent Garden or at the Met, you see the singers some distance away. You see them life size, with many metres separating you from them. In filmed opera you see them in large closeups, much as you see cinema actors. The latter are actors, not singers; their business is to look good. Opera stars are singers, not actors; looking good is peripheral to their craft. There’s also the problem of makeup: the cinema actor in closeup has special screen make up; the opera singer in closeup has theatre makeup, fine for distance viewing, not for such large magnification. Besides which, an opera star’s singing makes them take on expressions which don’t look particularly appealing up close.
Enough said. It’s unlikely I will ever get to see an opera at the Met. If I ever do, it will need meticulous advance planning and make large demands on my wallet. For all its shortcomings, the Met at NCPA gives me a chance to see what I could never hope to see. And I can hear the music in high-fidelity sound, which makes it, all in all, not a bad deal at all.