Backstage at the Opera

Heather Mac Donald, whose writings on Regietheater have prompted some animated discussion here, discusses her experience as a Met movie-goer in the Metropolitan Opera’s second season of beaming live performances into high-definition movie theaters across the world.

I did not go further than my radio for the Macbeth broadcast Heather is discussing. But I saw two of these last season: Il Trittico (deservedly dubbed The Stephanie Blythe show) and Eugene Onegin with Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Renee Fleming The latter is now available in your store of choice and is the opera DVD of century so far. You must own it if you collect such things, and if you don’t believe me, ask Garrison Keillor:

The conductor, Valery Gergiev, looked like a Wisconsin dairy farmer who just woke up and had a beer for breakfast. But he was magnificent.

I’m not an opera critic so I can’t compare this “Onegin” to the 1948 Bolshoi production or comment on Miss Fleming’s use of sprezzatura in the Letter Aria, but I can say how joyful it is to see great artists take big chances on the big screen and rip loose from the moorings of cool and sing with red-blooded passion. When the old bass Sergei Aleksashkin sings about his love for his young wife, it brings tears to your eyes. It makes everyone in the theater feel enlarged.

Bravo to the Met. Bravissimo. For three hours on a Saturday afternoon, everything that had been on our minds faded to black and we lived as in a dream with a handsome man in search of happiness and a beautiful woman who found satisfaction, and then we walked out into the snow and started our cars.

Indeed, the spectacular performance of a spectacularly riveting, insightful Robert Carsen production of an already spectacularly affecting opera is central to the specialness evident in Keillor’s captivating review. But beyond that, one thing both Mac Donald and I seem to find interesting is the audience engagement. Should we applaud? We know the artists can’t hear us. And yet, many of us felt like clapping throughout.

But ultimately, Heather centers her discussion on the backstage glimpse provided to movie theater viewers. If you’ve ever wondered what James Levine does in the intermission (I heard on the radio he changes tuxes), or just how mind-bogglingly huge that stage really is, or how much pressure the unsung backstage folks are under, here’s your chance to find out.

The Trittico was especially fun in this regard. The previous week they’d been touting the hugeness of the new Tabaro set on the radio broadcase and it didn’t disappoint. Invited backstage, we quickly stopped wondering just why they needed over 100 carpenters.

There is a documentary entirely devoted the backstage world of a major opera production. Sing Faster: The Stagehands Ring. I loved the first moment: the technical crew’s inability synchronize Donner’s swing of his hammer with the necessary visual and sound effects. I loved the final, breathtaking montage of all the sets of entire cycle in just the time left in the score after Brunhilde jumps. In between, we see almost nothing of singers, but we watch the crew as they practice scene changes, sing perfect Hochdeutsch to keep track of their cues, and interpret Wagner from their point of view. (“No, dude. They just found out they’re brother and sister.” “And they’re gonna do it anyway? Cool.”) Several times we are told “and it pretty much goes downhill from there.” Highly recommended.

Also availabe for rental by mail at

     Netflix, Inc.