Opera! Live! At the Movies!: Tan Dun's First Emperor - Live in High Definition

On Saturday morning, StinkyLulu undertook an adventure into heretofore untraveled entertainment waters: The simulcast of Tan Dun's First Emperor broadcast Live in High-Definition at an ABQ googaplex. The outing was part of a xmas gift to MamaStinky and StinkySis - who love that Crouching Tiger vibe and, upon seeing the promo before a screening of Night at the Museum thought the idea of opera at the movies might be fun. For StinkyLulu's part, the prospect seemed compelling. Would a "theatrical" live-broadcast feel like a "theatrical" experience? Certainly, it did seem likely that "The Metropolitan Opera - Live in High-Definition" would mostly be like the stuffy PBS video captures of opera performance, just on a much bigger screen. (Indeed, 'twas). Nonetheless, "Live on the Big Screen" seemed to be a fascinating hook. How "live" would it feel? Would it feel like an event somehow different than listening to it live on the radio or watching a recording on the teevee? Even more confounding, where would "Tan Dun's First Emperor - Live in High Definition" fit on StinkyLulu's lists (at right): in Screenings? or in LivePerfs? And -- the biggie -- would people buy buckets of popcorn, nachos and smelly pickles when enjoying opera at the movies?

So many important, confounding questions.
StinkyLulu just had to check it out.

So MamaStinky, StinkySis and StinkyLulu trundled over to ABQ's West Side to the single movie theatre within 100 miles to which StinkyLulu had never been. (MrStinky opted out of the adventure, choosing prison over opera. Seriously. But that's another story entirely...) After a typically inane ticket hassle, The Stinkys stood in line - for forever - along with hundreds of old white people. Most of whom seemed vaguely stunned by their movie lobby surroundings. (The much younger, much less white movie patrons - wielding tickets to Stomp the Yard or Happy Feet or Primeval - seemed no less shocked by these overdressed strangers in their midst.) 'Twas indeed a curious collision of entertainment cultures... Like Times Square in the 'Querque. Or something.

So, finally, the harried theatre manager - opera patrons are so needy (even/especially at the movies) - finally started letting folks into the two screens that had been devoted for the next four hours to the opera-ness. (Word on the line said that the first events in this series had so oversold that they decided to open a second theatre for the remaining dates, and even with that expansion, the event was near sold-out. Which means, if the 2nd theatre had roughly the same capacity as the one The Stinkys sat in, that's 720 or so opera seats sold... At 11am on a Saturday morning. In Albuquerque.) The Stinkys snagged real good seats in the center of the last row of the lower level of stadium seating. (Would that be the "orchestra"?) There, TheStinkys waited for the opera to begin...

And now...
StinkyLulu's Impressions of Opera! Live! At the Movies!

Did people concess at the Opera?: In a word - yes.
Buckets of popcorn. Vats of soda pop. And just as the prelude began, the woman right in front of TheStinkys began gnoshing on a real smelly weiner. The aroma of relish and mustard made for a curious blend with the Peking Opera style of the First Emperor's opening. But that weiner seemed to make that lady real happy.

The "welcome to the opera" introduction by Zhang Ziyi on the Metropolitan staircase was sweet (the First Emperor production was staged by film director Zhang Yimou, and Tan Dun's perhaps most acclaimed for his film scoring) but StinkyLulu had the distinct feeling that 80% or so of audience had no idea who this prettly Asian girl was. The glancing, mildly jokey film references got barely a titter of response. Not because they were lame (which they were) but because they went right over this crowd's head. Interesting that the attempt to use Zhang Ziyi - one of the great, contemporary international film beauties - as a bridge between audiences did not work at all...

Mediocre opera is tiresome, no matter how nifty the production, whether in standing room at the back of a 3000 seat house or in the cushy, reclining comfort of movie theatre stadium seating. First Emperor is an ambitious piece, with several electrifying sections that meld the east/west musical and theatrical sensibilities in exhilarating ways -- but mostly? The tale is told tediously, with a stentorian dramatic sensibility and a lugubrious bel canto fetish. Unfortunately, the episodic dramatic structure of traditional Chinese theatre (unconcerned with connecting plot dots through character or action ala Western drama) and the narrative-thrust-be-damned aspects of 19th Century Italian opera (where everything stops while someone sings and sings and sings) combine here to become just amazingly boring. The characters aren't emotionally captivating and the action is a trudge. (Among the principals, only tenor Paul Groves as the anti-hero Jianli was able to balance the exciting episodes of theatrical intensity with an undistracting but sustaining character continuity.)

The utterly banal camera work reflected the "Live From Lincoln Center" sensibilities and telecast conventions of this kind of production. Of course, the frustrating handful of moments where the camera framed things oddly were there, but the range of long-medium-close shots delivered as well. Further, for anyone with any theatre tech geek sensibilities, the depth of vision provided by the scale of the big screen provided many occasions to marvel at the extraordinary spectacularity of the production and the technical artistry of it all...

The voices were captured with delicious precision. The live-miking of the production also captured - with crystal clarity - the voice of the prompter at least 20 times. All for Placido. Mostly in the first act. Not hating. Just saying. (Though when Placido, at his character's climactic moment, had the presence of mind and elegance of carriage to kick Jianli's left-behind wig - laying on the floor like a stomped on rat - from centerstage to the pit? That was the work of a real pro.) If MamaStinky hadn't laughed so large at the mistake, many of the folks just around us would have surely not noticed at all...

Love that Met Chorus. By far the most accomplished performance in this piece came from the gazillion chorus folk, who performed the most interesting music while also somehow elevating the theatrical and dramatic stakes of the whole project. StinkyLulu still doesn't really understand the piece aesthetically - what it's about, what it's saying, why it matters - but the only glimmers came when the chorus was at work. A truly thrilling performance by all these nameless folk. (BTW- who are the Met chorus? do they get paid well? how hard is it to get into the chorus? Lulu knows next to nothing about the Met.)

Beverly Sills is a loon. But golly -- whatta mix of diva and yenta. She could probably get anyone to do anything. The intermission "backstage" pieces, both those hosted by Sills and the pseudo-documentary segments, defied Lulu's expectation of lameness to become a real treat. Sorta like nifty little culture-geek palate cleansers...

All told, First Emperor - The Metropolitan Opera - Live in High Definition proved to be a fascinating experiment and experience. Lu'll likely be back. And MamaStinky and StinkySis are already making plans. (And they don't even like opera.) 'Twill be interesting to see if this "Live Simulcast" schtick will expand to include other kinds of highbrow offerings, or if it'll continue to be primarily in service to the comic stylings of Dane Cook, revival meetings and retro arena bands. Because, really, can you imagine the wet panties of chubby girls and theatre queens everywhere if they started doing this with the Broadway-ish offerings of "Live From Lincoln Center"? (A girl can dream...)

But where - lovely reader - is StinkyLulu to list this?
A screening? A live performance? A what?

1 comment:

Erin said...

I listened to it on the radio and, like you, loved the choral numbers. My interest piqued, I had to find out what the opera was all about. Did my research on this thing they call the Web and wished that I could see it (Flagstaff had no simulcasting theater).

The costumes and set looked great in the pictures that I could find. It's a shame that it didn't exceed expectations. Yet, I did love listening to the more Eastern-themed music.