Opera Meets Film: A Conversation About Opera Essentia’s New Film Of Handel’s ‘Imeneo’

By John Vandevert
(Photo Credits: H. Paul Moon)

Performed among the foliage and resplendences of Campos Community Garden in New York City, one of a myriad of analogous respites, sanctuaries if you will, from the tyranny of cement and metal, the monotonous timbres and assaults of the urban soundscape, and the droning apathy and cold banality of inner-city dwelling, the caressing melodiousness of George F. Handel’s 41st opera, “Imeneo,” were heard.

A moralizing story about the nobility of duty and self-sacrifice even when faced with true love speaks dissonantly against the contemporary landscape in which the opera is being performed. Rosmene’s fidelity towards her official role and the difficulty of choosing obligation over romance is elegantly displayed amongst the Handelian shade of the Campos grounds. In a new filmed operatic experience by Opera Essentia, partnered with the cinematographic work of H. Paul Moon of Zen Violence Films, Handel’s beloved opera is treated to a truly plein-air experience of bird song and warm wind. For a film, the audio and visual dynamics are superb, while the singing, although stylistic, radiate equal parts sophistication and nuance as it should.

More than an experiment but not yet a movement, rendering opera a far more accessible artform has taken the form of putting opera into unconventional yet thematically consonant spaces like city gardens! The trend of setting and performing both classical and new operas in live locations rather than pre-designated places for operatic performance like a church or outdoor theater have been taken up by companies like The Industry Opera and On Site Opera. However, unlike these companies, this operatic project follows in the footsteps of several trends in 21st century opera performance all at once. One of those trends includes the medium itself, filmed opera. As OperaWire has covered before, operatic films in different modalities like the music video, operatic streaming, virtual reality, and long-form staged films are advantageous ways to make opera not only a less intimidating artform, although perhaps it should be, but a more reflective artform of the world in which it resides in today. As such, technological adaptations and hybridization of the operatic experience are proving to be beneficial ways to get opera into people’s hands without the excessive labor of convincing them to venture to opera theaters or spend excessively. 

That being said, what’s missing from these digital experiences is the hands-on aliveness which in-person opera brings to audiences. Even in designated theatrical spaces, audiences can sometimes still feel alienated from the performance: the distance from the singers, the sea of people, the scale of the hall, consuming them in many different ways. As a refreshing respite, Opera Essentia’s collaboration is a step towards a more holistic view of the operatic experience, taking Wagernian “Gesamtkunstwerk” towards a more natural, more ecologically-mindful state. A new way to interpret the world around us in signs and symbols rather than the codified form of language, performances of opera outside, within the halls and chambers of the natural world in whatever form it may take, reminds us of the womb by which life itself was created and from which opera came from. 

To talk through some details of this new filmed experience, I asked filmmaker H. Paul Moon and Opera Essentia’s Artistic Director Jeffrey Mandelbaum several questions to investigate several key aspects of this project.

OperaWire: Why choose to perform the opera in a public garden as opposed to a park or outdoor stage?

Jeffrey Mandelbaum: We present our Distillations of Handel’s works in diverse venues across NYC. Besides Campos Community Garden seen in the films, there are amphitheaters in South Bronx and Bed-Stuy public parks, with Harlem scheduled this May. We’ve started bringing our shows indoors too, at libraries and churches. Our mission is to bring approachable baroque gems to under-reached neighborhoods – removing barriers to Handel’s “essential” music, crafting accessible hour-long events for popular public spaces, with free admission. Campos is especially welcoming, intimate and beautiful, giving us natural scenery right there, and a perfect covered stage for our five person gut-string band.

OW: What are the benefits and/or challenges of filming an opera within this open-air space?

H. Paul Moon: This makes me think about the ways we watch opera most of the time: either at a performance peeking into the proscenium of a stage, or at home through stationary cameras doing the same from a distant position, pivoting and zooming to follow the action. Something radically different evolved over time that OperaWire has written a lot about with its “Opera Meets Film” series: treating an opera like a film production, with takes and cuts and repositioning cameras. This goes way back to Powell/Pressburger and even earlier – while in parallel, everyone sees the difference between attending a Broadway musical, and watching its movie adaptation. 

I’m drawn to a hybrid that takes the best of each style:  I like to see an audience there, cutting past any awkward suspicion of disbelief, that everyday characters can just burst into song, accepting instead that it’s documentation of a live performance. But I also crave the power of the edit. In 2018 I got the chance to experiment colliding all these values into “The Passion of Scrooge.” But what you’ll see in this new film of “Imeneo” – diverse angles, up-close focal lengths for meaningful depth of field between narrative foreground and botanical background, not merely auditorium rows – lends a more powerfully cinematic effect compared to most captured live productions. Tactics of live sound design, steadicam, sharp optics, and film emulation raise standards too. 

OW: What did you learn from your last filmed opera, “Orlando” and how did you apply it?

HPM: OperaWire shared the manic story of how that “Orlando” film came to be, and a big part of the excitement was how much we accomplished with only an hour or so of setup time, the day after I attended only as an audience member, not expecting to film it. Later on, Opera America recognized the film for its 2023 Awards for Digital Excellence in the top category, contending with huge monied houses. So even if contests are political and superfluous, this bolstered the grassroots idea to ignore typical luxuries of crewing up at large expense, and just sweat it out. But this time, I added more camera operators and microphones, took in rehearsals, and learned to embrace the imperfections implicit in live performance. You can see from this short clip at dress rehearsal that a dog wandered onto the set, cracking up Elly singing soprano, and in performance whenever the camera caught someone dropping into the garden, wandering around, interacting, it just added to the charm: not to be avoided. I’ve grown very fond of the organic color palette, natural light, and sounds of nature at that hallowed ground, which makes it hard now to experience opera inside the cavernous Met, just pretending to be outdoors.

OW: How does forming a more intimate relationship with the audience benefit opera?

JM: Connecting with the audience is one of the special benefits of performing in alternative spaces. Opera, and classical music altogether, is a foreign medium to most people, and attention is fickle. But when you have singers five feet away, or brushing past as they walk through the seats, it becomes an urgent experience. Handel’s arias are so emotionally stirring, and we curate shows that reveal the immediacy and power of this music for everyone.


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