The Cinematography of Digital Opera in the Pandemic
In this pandemic, with its necessity of physical distancing, opera—known for large-scale, human-intensive productions and larger-than-life immediacy—faces particular challenges. Many companies’ creative approaches to COVID-friendly performance have drawn on the past few decades of live broadcasts to bring their productions to house-bound, worldwide audiences. At the end of this first year, filmed opera produced during the pandemic can be broadly grouped into two main models: traditional videography that captures the onstage action through one or more cameras placed in the auditorium; and a cinematic hybrid approach that treats the performance like a film with no fourth wall, while maintaining the opera’s dramatic structure.
The first is what has been typically employed for broadcasts with an audience in the house. This method captures the action with several views from the best seats and the occasional close-up without adding much; when done well, it detracts little. This form, which has been gradually refined since the advent of cinema broadcasts a decade and a half ago, is more prevalent in 2020/21—especially when capturing canceled live performances or those with half an audience at some of the world’s larger houses.
Traditional videography is known, safe, and largely effective for capturing live theater, which presents unique challenges from a cinematographic standpoint. Eyes wander while watching a wide stage, and some viewers will spot details and background action that their seatmates will miss. When filmed, the camera becomes the sole eye, framing the story through the film director’s purpose and interpretation. This loses some of the live experience’s expansiveness, but when the cinematography consists of medium-wide shots with minimal cuts or soap-opera-esque pans, it lends a clean, sharp focus to the action.
But the safety of this approach highlights the omission of live feedback and contributes nothing new to the experience, underscoring the fact that this is the only version of opera many fans around the world are currently able to access. When the Wiener Staatsoper’s cast—performing from a bubble, in pre-pandemic proximity—takes a bow without an audience’s applause in the house, the absence is felt. This was especially notable in their New Year’s Eve “Die Fledermaus,” which thrives on laughter from the seats. Such broadcasts are documents rather than events.
Some companies have used the pandemic to refine their stage-bound filming and create clean, coherent performances, regardless of whether their cast is physically close or not. This is notable when film and staging work together to emphasize or diminish the performers’ physical distancing—sometimes highlighting both at once. Teatro Real’s distanced, gridded “La traviata” is filmed to emphasize the separation between soloists and masked ensemble. The stage’s marked squares are clearly visible, and the camera setup alternates between wide, medium, and close shots based on the singer’s positions; changes are not tied the story in its own right. This video is therefore a record rather than a storytelling feature. In contrast, Teatro Sociale di Como’s 2020 “Werther” is a COVID-friendly staging that uses projections and a raked stage to mimic physical closeness. The lens stays wide enough that its separated players appear to interact without distancing, synthesizing production and smart, unshowy cinematography to create something closer to an event. It is worth noting that Teatro Real had a half-full audience and Teatre Sociale di Como had none, perhaps giving the latter more freedom in both its concept and filming techniques.
Scottish Opera’s “Hansel and Gretel” and “Così fan tutte” are excellent examples of this traditional approach, refined with audiences at home in mind. As their casts were physically distanced during performance, their filmings do not zoom in for unnaturally close viewpoints—without a wider frame the sense of space and place would be lost. Arias are filmed in medium shots, allowing the solo artist to shine once the wider scene mechanics are established. The opening scene of “Così fan tutte” exemplifies theatrical filming at its finest. As Guglielmo and Ferrando discuss their beloveds and Don Alfonso introduces his bet, the camera remains stationary and wide, creating the appearance of a side room where the three talk freely. This angle and restraint further diminishes the distance between them, making the situation appear easy and natural rather than staged and limited. Close-ups are only employed to show Don Alfonso’s contract and the money riding on the bet–driving the plot rather than distracting from the action.
But this standard filming practice, however well executed, is far from the innovation of the cinematic hybrid approach. Here, an intimate, integrated style of filming blends boundaries between stage and screen work. Non-theatrical settings, direct presentation of arias to camera, and cinematography that is not bound by the rules of an opera house are explored to create opera “as” film rather than opera “on” film. When the story is freed from a conventional stage setting, original artistic and storytelling opportunities emerge.
This hybrid language has been seen more and more frequently in the last three months, as the pandemic prevents an imminent return to normalcy and companies have had more time to adapt. It has also been championed by smaller companies with fewer preexisting setups. The best examples of this cinematic practice to date have been smaller, possibly overlooked operas that operate on a more pragmatic scale than grand operas with large choruses. This does not necessarily mean that grander operas from the pre-film era would not work in a cinematic retelling, but 20th-century pieces have an advantage in their more modern storytelling conventions.
Scottish Opera’s “The Telephone” was an early representative of this hybrid form. Menotti’s two-person opera was shot in the empty King’s Theatre bar and lobby rather than its stage, which fit the rom-com stylings of two people in love but unable to communicate. Rapid cuts between singers emphasized their just-missed opportunities and endless-yet-always-truncated conversations. A triumphant, romantic declaration of love seen from the balcony and spilling into the streets completed the picture. The result was a charming, whimsical reworking that took nothing away from the text.
OperaGlass Works’ “The Turn of the Screw” was re-staged as a film to replace a canceled live run. Much of the opening draws attention to the fact that it was meant to be a live show, but when the conceits are stripped away, the cinematography highlights the innate claustrophobia of an empty theater. The camera explores new dark corners during orchestral moments, and the Governess and Mrs. Grose discuss the children just out of their earshot, standing above the door down to their “playground” onstage. The filming gives the sense that the unknown and the just-out-of-sight is the real danger. As the ghosts work their way into the story, “supernatural” flickerings like those on a scratchy VHS tape or corrupted film reel begin appearing in the film itself, giving the impression that something else is tampering with the footage. It might be a gimmick, but it takes full advantage of the medium.
This “Turn of the Screw” does not fundamentally alter the opera’s pacing and poetic turns of phrase—the former slower than the average film, the latter uncommonly found in the cinematic medium. Arias and asides are delivered straight to camera, evoking the empathetic connection a viewer might feel in a theater. Breaking the fourth wall may be unusual in cinema, but working against the device would be detrimental to the opera’s characters. And by embracing the tricks of cinema—an art that has never been “live”—the story feels more immediate and the ghosts more threatening. Its real power comes in using these stylings in service of the characters and story.
Arguably the most cinematic is Grange Park Opera’s “Owen Wingrave,” a fitting choice as Britten’s made-for-television opera. The company commits fully to the new medium, even creating an MGM-esque ident with a conducting squirrel for their “Pandemicist’s Cinema.” The filming cannot entirely erase Britten’s and Piper’s dramatic flaws and overabundance of characters, but cinema’s closeness distinguishes the many voices in Owen’s ear and provides a window straight into the hero’s personal convictions and doubts. When Owen’s family members sing “How dare you!” the camera zooms and focuses on each in turn, emphasizing the fundamental isolation of the hero’s anti-war stance. Owen, who had begun by delivering monologues straight into the camera with unwavering principle, is then captured speaking more and more “to himself” as his separation and defiance grow. This growing cinematic alienation hints at Owen’s doom before it unfolds.
Perhaps the strongest choice is to eschew complete realism. “Owen Wingrave” (like “Turn of the Screw”) is based on a ghost story and told through the exaggerated framing of opera. Why try to tone it down? At the fateful, venomous family dinner, the black and white cinematography is broken by blood red wine in the glasses. The color grading shows this red reflected in silver-grey candlesticks, hinting that the tragedy contained on the battlefield will spill into the Wingrave’s personal sphere. And when this happens, color saturates the whole frame. The cycle of violence has caught—and freed—Owen before he compromised his morals.
The larger opera companies are following suit with larger operas. Seattle Opera is currently preparing to stream its film version of “Don Giovanni,” which they describe as an “opera film” that takes inspiration from a 1960s black and white recording of “Hamlet.” Speaking on their blog, stage director Brenda Corner says, “Cinematic photography has a unique theatricality of its own” and welcomes the chance to embrace new storytelling perspectives. In a similar vein, Opera Roma recently announced a “film-opera” of “La traviata” starring Lisette Oropesa. Both operas are larger than the written-for-screen, intimate pieces discussed above, but have seen past screen adaptations from directors such as Losey and Zeffirelli, with varying success. It will be interesting to see if these works find new life purely through the screen, and how their productions attempt to synthesize the best of opera from world-class houses with effective videography. Now is the time to reimagine how these two mediums can work together.
In the pandemic year, it is not surprising that standard videographic practices have served as a solid performance capture base—with a wide lens capturing a distanced cast and theatrical set, these have largely been the same as live broadcasts from previous years. However, more daring cross-medium work can take opera from gilded halls to a laptop screen without losing any sense of artistry. This is an overdue development. As the internet opens opera for wider, diverse, scattered crowds, opera must compete with more immediate forms of entertainment as well as a myriad of home work and life distractions to sustain and grow its audience. Adaptations on film for isolated audiences must retain the power of a live performance to carve out a space in the digital attention economy–making recorded opera a different—but not lesser—experience. ¶