Broadway's HD Baby

Pros and cons of my reel versus my real, theatrical life.

Posted Jun 05, 2018

Joan Ullman
Source: Joan Ullman

Another season of The New York Metropolitan Opera recently ended.  I remain as torn as ever between preferring to see it live versus live HD-screened as I’ve been since the Met began presenting its simulcasts in late 2006.

Decades ago, I went to six or more Met productions a year with a friend who, like me, had moved from Chicago to New York. In our seats, in the back of the orchestra, we felt thrilled to be enjoying opera in its grandest home. Before, we’d only savored the Met vicariously, during its Saturday afternoon Texaco radio broadcasts.

But the steadily rising price of our tickets kept forcing us to adapt. We’d see one or two fewer productions a year, from one or two rows farther back from the stage.

From its start, I found the Met’s HD series, at between $20 to $30 a ticket (as opposed to just under $100 or more), a bargain.

The technically sublime telecasts bring operas’ fraught dramas of love, hate, jealousy, betrayal, lust and insanity close-up and breathtaking. Watching opera plots unfold onscreen also brings their stories to life more vividly than they did for me when viewed on a distant stage. The multitude of today’s opera singers who are as fit, gorgeous, and skilled at acting as most film stars only adds to the pleasure of cinematic viewing.   

During its two or three thirty or more minute-long intermissions, the Met treats its audience to a fascinating look backstage. We watch its huge crews manage the opera’s hectic and hugely complex scene changes. Other times, we're led on tours through the Met's wig, costume, or make-up rooms. We're also treated to brief but insightful Q&A's with the day's current stars, hosted by Renee Fleming, Deborah Voight, Eric Owens, or another of the Met’s greatest singers,

Some of my opera-loving friends disagree with me about the pleasures of the HD screenings. Because of its un-amplified sound, they still prefer any seat, however far back or high up in the resplendent Met auditorium, to watching an opera telecast. One friend prefers to sit where she’s sat for decades, in the top tier of the balcony, claiming: “The sound up there is the best in the theater.”

Met director Peter Gelb wishes there were more people like my friend. He’s begun to fear that the unexpected popularity of his HD screenings threatens to cut into live attendance at the Met. I don’t feel that bad for him however. At some point, any loss in his live opera-goers has got to be offset by the huge influx of new, and even younger, opera-lovers that the Met’s HD series has introduced to the opera world.

I knew the debate over the merits of seeing first-hand and original artwork in a museum, versus its image reproduced in a book, dates to at least as far back as Plato.

But the 21st century, with its incredible progress in digital and other technology–including amazing gains in Artificial Intelligence–has blurred distinctions between the real and its copies as never before. 

And the issues are only growing more complex. Must students be taught by live teachers, or can they learn as effectively in online courses? Will smart cars driven by robots soon replace those driven by real people–and should they? Further muddying the issue of "what is art," great films–like Casablanca, or Gone with the Wind–despite qualifying as only images, have themselves achieved the status of genuine art objects.

My own Met HD opera-going experience has been unique, additionally complicating my views of the Met’s HD telecasts.

I live across the street from Lincoln Center in Manhattan. So I’ve mostly viewed its HD screenings in a movie theater that’s practically next door to the Met itself. At the end of the telecasts, I exit my cinema amidst the nearby throngs of the Met’s live opera goers. I leave with literally one foot in reel life and one in real life; I may have viewed the opera on screen, but I’m reminded that I did so in the very heart of a very real New York City–less than a block from where the live productions  are staged.

During the last year, I’ve only grown more torn. Dance companies and theaters around the world have also leapt onto the HD bandwagon. Some have done brilliantly. But in some cases the viewing experience has seemed not that much better than watching a Live from Lincoln Center telecast from years ago. In fact, I initially shrank from watching the relatively new  Broadway HD telecast of a current Broadway play from the confines of my living room couch.

It struck me that I could be living in the suburbs, "45 minutes from Broadway," as the George M. Cohan lyrics go. I could be living anywhere–even back in Chicago. This new HD theater screening would be just another sad reminder of the ever steeper, unaffordable climb in ticket prices–and of my own age–make that–arthritis-related, slowing down.

When I first moved here, I’d actually geared much of my New York life not just to seeing live Broadway or Off-Broadway shows, but to seeing them as early as possible–something I could never do growing up. In Chicago, a single critic had reviewed all the arts in all the papers: music, theater, opera. Since this critic loathed almost everything she saw, producers shied from opening any new play or musical in Chicago for fear of it getting panned. So we saw only road shows of hit Broadway plays. These productions arrived still-born, often having run for years in New York, to be pronounced in true Second City style: "much better than the original!"

It wasn’t until I went east to college that I got to see previews of plays. I couldn’t get enough. To this day I still enjoy seeing plays, films or other works of art in preview, before they’ve been reviewed. I love the energy, the freshness and excitement–even the occasional misstep–that spill from the stage.

For years, theater remained central to New York’s appeal for me. When I moved to Manhattan, I chose my apartment because it was walking distance from Broadway. And when my now 28-year-old granddaughter was growing up, I loved taking her to every new show I thought we both might enjoy: Annie, Porgy and Bess, Sideways, Titanic, The Lion King. Today, however, such outings are far too costly for me and my now 12 year-old grandson to enjoy nearly so often.

Notwithstanding my qualms, I eventually opted to pay $44 for a year’s viewing of the new Broadway HD. Considering that this was once the price for a single off-Broadway theater ticket, whereas today it’s hard to find any such ticket for under $100, I couldn't resist.

To date I’ve seen a couple of great filmed dance and theater presentations. But I’ve also just spent a year as a frequent guest of a close friend at the Met. And while I’ve missed the close-up view from the HD screenings, I’ve had to concede that seated in the orchestra, with an unimpeded view of the stage, a live performance at the Met offers a unique thrill of sight and sound that’s unrivaled.

Still, I was surprised when recently, this same friend–my long time Met opera devotee–friend, told me how fortunate she felt that she and her husband last summer had chanced to see a filmed Royal Shakespeare production of Angels in America

“It’s the identical production that’s on Broadway now,” she told me. And we saw it for the cost of a movie ticket."

My friend, who had all but convinced me of live opera’s pluses over filmed, was the last person I expected to hear this from. 

Sadly, her words only left me more confused than ever. Should I start saving for a ticket I doubted I could ever afford for Angels in America? Or hope I too, will one day be lucky enough to catch it on an HD telecast?