This week I visited a cherry orchard to experience something I’ve been avoiding. I discovered that it’s actually pretty good.
Five years ago the Metropolitan Opera in New York, led by its new and intrepid General Manager Peter Gelb, pioneered simulcasts of operas to cinemas around the country. (The Met calls it a “cinemacast.”) Gelb’s bravura move was accompanied, in classic opera tradition, by a chorus of skepticism and prophesies of doom. Guess what? It’s been a success. Mind you, not on the scale of LinkedIn’s IPO or Facebook, but these days any success in the performing arts counts as a big success.
The Met’s success has emboldened other major arts companies to move in this direction, including England’s Royal Opera House and National Theatre.
Currently on stage at the National Theatre in London is a lauded production of Chekhov’s play, The Cherry Orchard. This week I bought a $20 ticket and went to it – in Seattle. Twenty dollars is maybe $1,500 less than I would have spent to go see it in London. I revere Chekhov and was free that evening so I indulged my curiosity about this new medium. The simulcast was presented in a perfect space, an elegant 400-seat lecture hall at McCaw Hall, the home of the Seattle Opera, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle International Film Festival. I’m guessing the seats were three-fourths sold.
I was anticipating a boring, stationary one-camera view of the stage action. What I saw was galaxies away from that sleep-inducing scenario. These simulcasts have adapted the technology and techniques of professional sports television broadcasts. Think of how many cameras and angles are used to broadcast an NFL football game today. All those video feeds come into a trailer on-site and editors deftly vary the images the viewer sees at home. These editing techniques plus the HD image produced an experience that was satisfying, though inferior to being there in person (that might not even be true for a seat in the rear balcony of a large Broadway house). There is a real intermission and before you go the National will even sell you a program online for three pounds.
There was a moment in the simulcast when I could see the cameras immediately in front of the stage. There were several of them and they are big and move fast, either on tracks or rollers. It appeared to me that the first row or two of seats had been removed. You could also see head mics on the actors, such as are worn in musicals. I had to wonder how distracting this would be for the live audience at a performance that was being simulcast. The cameras did a lot of zooming, giving close-ups during intimate exchanges and wide shots of the whole stage when the action called for that.
A bonus was an interview with the director, Howard Davies, and a short bit with the National’s Artistic Director, Nicholas Hytner, features that the London audiences do not get. I particularly appreciated Davies’s interview. I have attended The Cherry Orchard at least half a dozen times and have the DVD of a fine film adaptation with Charlotte Rampling and Alan Bates. Davies pointed out that this play, written in 1903 and Chekhov’s last, vividly lays out the two paths Russia would face a few years later in the 1917 revolution: Lopakhin, the capitalist, and Trofimov, the communist. We now know that Trofimov won, but only for seventy years. In the end it was Lopakhin who prevailed.
I’m thinking that these simulcasts can bolster the performing arts in America and broaden the audiences that attend them. Like every other corner of the American economy, the performing arts have suffered in the current recession. But this industry is also dealing with challenges that long predate the recession and are driven by major demographic changes and the emergence of countless new forms of media. A negative note is that the 300 or so attendees with me at The Cherry Orchard looked no different in age and ethnicity than your typical Seattle play or opera audience.
Anything that makes the audience pie bigger is good for the arts. Hats off to Peter Gelb and the Met for blazing this path.
(Click here for still images of the National Theatre’s production of The Cherry Orchard. To get a rough sense of the simulcast experience, click here for four minutes of excerpts of the Met’s recent simulcast of Die Walkure from Wagner’s Ring Cycle.)