Opera Meets Film: The Lost Art of Filming Live Opera in HD

By David Salazar

The HD phenomenon has taken hold of the opera world over the past few decades, even though video recordings of performances have been around for quite some time. But today it has become embedded as a major part of the operatic experience and some might argue that a number of productions in major theaters are directed with the high-definition video recordings in mind.

And given its increased importance in an HD world, one would imagine that the quality of the video recordings would naturally improve over time. While the technology has certainly captured more vibrant and photorealistic images, the actual art of video recording opera performances has seemingly been lost over time. Not dying or diminished, but lost.

The modern HD era is one dominated by rampant edits, strange camera choices, and a general lack of storytelling vision and cohesion that make you often wonder whether the person behind the camera is sensitive to a vocal line, what a musical score entails, or even how to tell a compelling and immersive story.

The Power of Editing (Or Not)

Let’s take a look at an example from the 2018 Met Opera broadcast of “Tosca” featuring Sonya Yoncheva in the title role. She sings the famed “Vissi d’arte,” an aria that is all about Tosca having a conversation with God and asking why she’s made to suffer the way she has. It’s an intimate moment for Tosca, a monologue. Scarpia is in the room, but she’s not talking to him.

Here is how the three-minute aria was transmitted.

There is a lot to value in the choices made here. The aria opens with a solid zoom into Yoncheva that brings us closer and creates increased intimacy. The choice to end the aria on a tighter closeup also adds to the intensity of the moment; the edit on the high note on “Signor” is similarly well-timed.

But then there’s everything else in between, a mess of cutting back and forth with little discernible intention. At the 37-second mark the video cuts to a wide shot on the second phrase of the aria “Con man furtiva.” It’s a new section of the piece and it makes sense for perhaps a shift of space. But even before the full idea has been expressed, the camera cuts right back to a closeup of Yoncheva on “Quante miserie conobbi aiutai.”

Then comes perhaps the most egregious of cuts – a wide shot from above the stage that suddenly alerts the audience to the rest of the set and the baritone, Zeljko Lucic moving around at the back, completely detached from Yoncheva’s action; it is telling the viewer to look elsewhere because something is more important than Yoncheva in this very moment (there isn’t). One might argue that Yoncheva doesn’t sing right away and it might be more interesting to give the audience something else to look at. But that very notion is contradicted right away when the camera tilts down and pushes right back towards Yoncheva as she starts to sing. The director clearly wants us to stay with her, which begs the question – why move away from her at all to begin with? Why bring the camera as far back from her, only to cut close to her just seconds later? What’s more, this shot stays with Yoncheva longer than any other preceding or following one, clocking in at a steady minute and 12 seconds. Of course we move to a wide shot moments later, only to eventually cut right back to a closeup, this time in the middle of her singing. Why? Again, the decision to move away from her makes no sense if the intention is to eventually cut right back to her. Less than 20 seconds later, we cut back to a wide shot before eventually cutting to a closeup to end the aria.

This approach, in my view, is problematic for a number of reasons. First off, it undercuts the performer and the stage direction itself. As mounted, this moment is all about Yoncheva’s singing. There is no other stage business going on around her at all. There is nothing intended to distract from our connection to Tosca’s suffering.

In the theater, our eyes would likely be glued to her every gesture and moment. If we are involved with her performance, we aren’t shifting around and looking at other parts of scenery. We wouldn’t shift back in our seats to gather a different angle of Yoncheva singing the aria. We just want to be with her in that moment. I, as a viewer, instinctually want to feel as close to her as possible in this moment; the power of cinema is that it makes us feel that we can be in the action and never distanced from it. This should enhance the operatic immersion that we can’t quite get anywhere else. But, a sudden cut to a wide shot is the director’s way of telling my brain that I should sit back instead of lean in.

Moreover, the ping pong match of cutting away from the singer and then back, sometimes in the middle of her phrases only brings attention to the artifice of it all. We suddenly become aware that we are watching a number of cameras around this person instead of viewing this artist through one cumulative lens. Because of film’s immersive nature, we don’t recognize when there are multiple cameras capturing a scene because the intention is not to bring attention to the camerawork but immerse us in the world of the characters and the story being told. In an aria, when it is just one person, the sudden cuts from one camera to another remind us that this person is being filmed from a wide range of angles, which serves to further alert us that we are watching a filmed performance instead of living a moment with an artist engaged in an emotional reality onstage.

Finally, it displays a lack of trust in both the artist and the audience. A lack of trust in the artist because it subconsciously tells the viewer that the video director does not think that the artist is capable of keeping the audience’s attention for three minutes without the need for an edit. By extension, it also questions the audience attention span and ability to be immersed in an image without the need for change.

Let’s take a look at another video recording of this very aria from the middle of the 20th century. The videographer doesn’t have the advantage of an HD camera (or multiple cameras for that matter) or even color. So let’s take a look at the choices here.

Let it be clear that the intention here is not to compare Yoncheva and Callas. Both are unique artists in their own right and give solid performances of the aria. But the camera director on the Callas performance doesn’t cut away from her at all. Not once. The entire aria is filmed in one closeup, giving the viewer a chance to be with her at every step of her emotional journey. Every detail and nuance of her singing is amplified by how the camera captures her acting. Moreover, we don’t even realize if this is on stage or not because the camera has no interest in taking us away from her (this is in fact part of a live performance). You come away feeling a tremendous sense of trust from the filmmaker toward the artist, which is the ultimate level of respect.

Compare that with the Yoncheva recording where the director seems more interested in finding new angles or moments to move away from Yoncheva.

Of course, one might argue that in the modern era, films feature far more edits than ever before and that this is the film grammar audiences are used to. One could make that argument on some level because it is true that films feature far more edits than they used to. But the best filmmakers don’t make edits without reason and many, in fact, have no issue keeping the camera on an actor (or actors) for the entirety of a scene, waiting for the precise moment to cut and add to its underlying impact.

Moreover, the music is a part of the action and deserves to be given the same level of understanding as one might to a dramatic action between characters. The music itself often charts the dramatic intention of a scene and its emotion, as is clearly the case in an aria like “Vissi d’arte” where the emotion intensifies and builds. Some of the cuts in the Yoncheva version undermine the music, going against the grain of its emotional content and direction. Like Tosca, who can’t contain her emotions, the audience should feel like they are so close to the intensity of the emotions that they can’t bear them any longer. But fixating on new angles to see the action from, actually alienates us from it.

Of course, for many this doesn’t matter at all because they are so invested in the performance that camera cuts don’t take away from the experience. But the argument here is that the experience could be all the more immersive and intense if the filmmaking was more precise in its intention. Here are a few other examples of some questionable filmmaking from other prominent opera companies around the world.

Many of the issues from Yoncheva “Tosca” (and others as well) rear their heads again, this time in Munich and London.

To be clear, there is no advocacy here for filming an aria or an opera segment in one shot as indicated by the Callas clip. Edits can be usefully employed and often necessary when splicing together bits from multiple performances for a transmission to omit errors, etc (that said, it’s a live performance and errors are expected and beautifully human). But a solid edit is one that doesn’t bring attention to itself by taking us away from the action, as showcased in the above examples. Here is one modern recording where the videographers do employ minimal and well-timed edits, and the result is a more cohesive, immersive, and ultimately intense experience of “Addio del passato.”

You’ll notice that this entire article, to this point, has focused solely on arias. They are arguably the most challenging to film for any videographer as the action is often minimal and the choices for edits equally limited. But that’s the point ultimately. This desire to cut is a part of the cinematic DNA of modern filmmakers and extension of the desire for visual control, but it’s overuse can ultimately lessen its great impact. Sometimes, you just have to let go. There’s a place for the edit and there’s times where it is unnecessary. Just watch the Callas and Jaho videos again and you can see how far faith in the genius of the artist can take you.

Camera Choices & Strong Editing

The preceding passages put attention on editing choices, without really touching on camera moves or intentions. So for that, we will turn to an excerpt from Verdi’s “Otello” and two separate videos from the Metropolitan Opera and break down some camera decisions and also emphasize an example of truly powerful editing for opera. The first is from the HD era and the latter filmed back in the late 1970s directed by Brian Large.

With the HD clip, we once again see the constant cutting back and forth all over the place, but what is even more evident here is the constant shifting back and forth of different camera angles of the same action – Fleming sitting and singing. It doesn’t elevate her performance, but distracts from it.

In one moment we are right there in front of her from a low angle. Then we cut to a high angle shot of her before a closeup and the pattern repeats itself again and again. Moreover, the low angle seems to dolly back and forth in front of her, adding to the visual confusion. Why is the camera moving around in front of her instead of just staying with her in this one extensive emotional beat? Moreover, where is it leading us and what will it reveal about the emotions of the scene? Movement without intention is arguably the best way to confuse a viewer in cinema; it creates anticipation and direction, which desires a payoff. Without it, the viewer feels cheated. This is amplified when you repeatedly use the same visual tool with the same (lack of) results, as is in practice here.

What’s more, great filmmaking presents new information with every new image presented. When the viewer starts seeing repeated images that can’t provide new information in the context of the story (as we see above), they start to tune out and become passive viewers. You might as well just listen at that point.

Contrast that with no fidgeting from Large and his team, who despite having inferior video quality at their disposal, deliver incredible storytelling. You are locked in from the start to the end, knowing that every single visual choice with the camera and editing will have a purpose and payoff.

Large is arguably one of the greatest videographers the opera world has ever seen. He is precise, elegant, and always respectful of the music and drama unfolding. You will rarely find his recordings cutting in the middle of a phrase or pushing the viewer away from the action (unless it is dramatically essential), as is evidenced in the above clip. Everything is in service of telling the story clearly and effectively; it never brings attention to itself. The camera zooms slowly (I can’t stress how imperceptible this movement can feel) toward Gilda Cruz Romo to bring us closer and then backs away when it is ready to bring in the rest of the ensemble. Unlike the HD version, which makes a cut to a wide angle that takes us out of the action once the other singers enter, Large zooms out and then pans to other characters, ensuring that we linger with the action, before giving us a wider shot; in this manner the transition is less jarring as we can almost anticipate a cut to more central characters. Adding to this narrative cohesion is that the ensemble, in effect also ends with a zoom, this time to Otello who will put an end to it all. It gives the entire ensemble visual and narrative structure, something which the HD recording is unfortunately lacking.

Then there are other choices that simply add to the narrative immersion. For example, the camera follows Iago’s walk from Otello to Rodrigo, one of the few times that the director emphasizes a camera move of such length; but the narrative focus makes it ultimately pay off on its own. Compare that with the aforementioned dollies in front of Fleming; that movement should reveal something to us, but ultimately never pay off in any distinct way.

Later in the Brian Large clip, Otello kicks everyone out in a wide shot that emphasizes how alone he is on the bare stage. After he falls to the ground, the camera cuts to an intense closeup of Iago, enshrouded in darkness. In the previous image, we never saw Iago linger, so his sudden presence in such intense lighting immediately adds emotional impact to the scene as we watch. In the theater, people might have seen Iago looming in the background and had the time to infer his actions, but the choice to hide him from view on video creates a unique effect specific to this visual artform.

When you break down Large’s precision in this context and go back to the HD clip, you start to feel like the HD editing and filmmaking wants to give the viewer everything at the same time (which is impossible in cinema to begin with). The result is a choppy experience that feels improvisatory and unprepared (which is not close to the truth as the HD crews spend countless hours preparing for the big day; the artistic choices, however, undermine this hard work).

None of this would be worth pointing out if not for the fact that this is an overriding trend of how live opera is created worldwide. With few exceptions (such as the Met broadcast of a uniquely edited “Tristan und Isolde” starring Deborah Voigt a few years ago), videos of live operas often feature the same visual style that does not take into account the differing works of art and their own individual sensibilities. That ultimately presents other major challenges to the art form and its potential for greater growth and development.


Opera Meets FilmSpecial Features