Nuns with manicures

Well, finally I went to see one of those Metropolitan Opera live moviecasts — the live performances streamed to movie theaters. And yes, it was marvelous. The work was ll Tritticowhich, as ever, I find slow going in Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica, and divine in Gianni Schicchi. (Well, except for that climactic chord at the end of Suor Angelica — the soprano on high C, G in the bass, and D, F, and A in between. I’ve never looked at a score, but each time I hear it, I just love that chord. It’s a modern pop sound, decades before its time — and the pop notation, Dm7/G, makes a lot more sense than any classical chord symbols anyone might use for it.)

But you might not be reading this to see me gush about Puccini’s harmony. (Though really I ought to talk more about music here. And I love Puccini.) So here’s my future of classical music point. Yes, it’s terrific to see the Met in a movie theater. There’s the communal sense of a live performance. People applauded, just as they’d do in the opera house. And the opera looks larger than life, which is also what you’d want if you saw it live.

And yet I’ll cite two problems. First, some of the nuns in Suor Angelica — seen, unavoidably, in close-ups — had fancy manicures. Now, if you’re an opera fan, you might say, “So what?”

You’re thrilled to see the opera on a movie screen. You don’t care about anybody’s nails. (And who’s going to tell the singers that, just for this one performance, they have to unmanicure themselves, and then run out to the nail salon to get the manicures done again? Will the Met pay for that?)

But when I told someone not yet an opera initiate about the manicures, he just howled with laughter. And that’s just the point. To the extent that these moviecasts reach outside the standard opera audience, the nuns’ nails really do matter. Movie fans collect gaffes like that in movies. Sometimes they do it affectionately. But if they sense that the people making the movie aren’t wholly serious, they’ll get angry, or at least derisive. If the Met wants a mainstream audience for its theater showings (and maybe later for DVD releases), it has to take responsibility for every detail on the screen.

Which then brings me to the intermission conversation between Jack O’Brien, who directed the production, and James Levine, who conducted it. This, to put it plainly, was self-congratulatory crap. O’Brien says Levine is wonderful, Levine says O’Brien is wonderful, both say the operas and the singers are wonderful. This, from two smart guys, who could talk much more seriously if they wanted to. (Actually, they seemed like they could dish the production from top to bottom, which would have been priceless, not that we’ll ever see it happen.)

If this had been a bonus track on a movie DVD, my friend would once again be snorting, If, that is — since he’s a smart guy himself — he wasn’t offended at this insult to his intelligence. How can people get away with blather like this in classical music, with nobody saying a word against them, w hen anywhere in popular culture they’d get blasted? (Just for instance: The Onion –the satirical newspaper that, on its more serious pages, has some of the  smartest pop-culture coverage anywhere — makes a cottage industry of finding  dumb DVD commentary tracks.)

Why couldn’t Levine and O’Brien name the parts of the operas that don’t quite work? (I’d nominate the end of Il Tabarro, when the baritone draws his wife, the soprano, under his cloak, just he did when they were young lovers — except that this time the cloak hides the body of the tenor, the soprano’s lover, whom the baritone has just strangled. Especially in closeup — with poor Licitra doing his best to look like a google-eyed corpse — this could have been one of those EC horror comics from back in the ’50s, where gore was uncorked partly for laughs.)

Or they could have talked about the parts that were hard to stage. Or the parts that were easy. Or the parts that at first they interpreted differently. Then they could have told us how they resolved their differences. Or — since in another intermission feature we were told that this production had the most massive set ever seen at the Met — they could have told us how they got such a huge (and surely expensive) set approved, at a time when the Met has been running deficits.

Some people worry that classical music is going to be dumbed down. I worry that — at least as it’s normally presented — it doesn’t seem smart enough.

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  1. says

    It sounds as though you expect the stage work to adapt to what the camera will catch. You’ve got it backwards. The problem isn’t what’s happening on stage, with the manicures: it’s that the cinematographer didn’t catch that and go for shots that would not REVEAL the manicures. (And the director and editor also didn’t catch this.) The audience in the house sees something quite different; they’re just never close enough to catch the artificiality of manicures and (of course) stage makeup, wigs, etc.

    You have to remember that this is similar to the idea that what is most important is how good-looking or thin the singers are, not whether they can sing. That’s a really bad road, and one we’re already going down.

    Thanks for this, Lisa. It gives me a lot to think about.

    I’d start with this. If you’re going to put high-definition opera in movie theaters, then of course you’re creating something visual. That means that something worth seeing has to be on the screen. And worth seeing not just for opera people — it’s got to be visually plausible for any smart person who happens to be there.

    But this doesn’t mean everyone has to be pretty. To do that would be to enter the lowest rung of current culture. We have to aim higher. We might want to aim at the part of current culture where — just for instance — Bjork is a big star. If Bjork can be a star, than obviously stars don’t have to be conventionally pretty. So we could put on opera with really wild-looking people, unorthodox people, people who’d be both vocally and visually powerful, whether they were pretty or not. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Certainly it would be more operatic than the rather careful, doggedly realistic “Trittico” the Met actually showed.

    Do we want models for that? We can find them, in Italian operatic films from the 1950s. These — many available from the Bel Canto Society — are fabulous. Often — as in an “Elisir” with Cesare Valetti as Nemorino, or especially a “Rondine” from the San Carlo opera house in Naples — the theatrical values are as detailed, careful, and compelling as anything we’d see now.

    But the singers aren’t necessarily pretty. The Adina in “Elisir,” Alda Noni, isn’t pretty. But she’s strongly compelling. So is Rosanna Carteri, the Magda in “La Rondine,” along with her Ruggero, Giuseppe Gismondo (a new name to me). Not pretty, but you believe in them, maybe in Carteri’s case simply because she’s such an irresistible diva (far outdoing Guleghina in the Met’s “Tabarro,” who in movie-theater closeup comes off as partly an actress and partly a diva, but not enough of either to be truly memorable).

    And then you can look at a devastating “Trovatore,” with Mario del Monaco, Ettore Bastiannini, Leyla Gencer, and Fedora Barbieri. Nobody’s pretty (well, Barbieri, in her role, doesn’t have to be). And Del Monaco is strikingly short. But he and Bastininni just exude virility, visually and vocally. This is the only “Trovatore” I’ve ever seen or heard where the rivalry of the two men feels like it really could be a matter of life and death.

    Or we can think of Carlo Bergonzi, the great tenor of the ’60s and ’70s (who stayed active into the ’80s), who was never exactly handsome or in any way an actor on stage. You could go to see him, and for the first few minutes of any opera he was in, you’d think (or anyway I’d think), “God, he’s not even trying!” Twenty minutes later, he’d often enough be the only one I could watch, the only one who seemed genuine. His singing — and, beyond that, the way he carried himself, whether or not you’d call it acting — was so real that nothing else mattered.

    So that’s the goal I’m aiming at — truth, whether it’s conveyed realistically or not. And certainly without any care about whether anyone looks pretty. (Except maybe in a role like Lauretta in “Gianni Schicchi,” who’s so dim in most ways that only if she’s devastatingly cute does her function in the plot make any sense. Oddly, the Met didn’t cast a pretty singer in this role, and that disappointed me.)

    Manicured nuns detract from this kind of truth, whether the singers are pretty, or whether they’re irresistible freaks. And about cinematography — yes, I agree that at least in theory, the camera work could avoid the nuns’ hands. Old movies — from the ’30s through the ’50s, at least — don’t show peoples’ hands in closeup as often as current movies do. But then the movies — the staging, the camera angles — could all be planned with that in mind. I wonder if that’s equally possible when you’re filming a stage show. Maybe to rule out showing hands would rule out most closeups. I don’t know how you could have closeups of Guleghina without showing her careful manicure, which — since she’s playing a woman who works on a barge — was just as implausible as the nuns’.

    Also implausible in “Tabarro” — most of the cast has been unloading the barge all day, or in other words doing heavy manual labor. But they’re impeccably clean, without even a hint of a sweat stain on their clothes.

    feels like really seems like a matter of life and death.

  2. says

    Thanks for the post, Greg. The “nuns’ manicure” problem is, as you allude to, something that mars DVDs. For opera to really make that jump to recorded, digital media it needs to address this issue and accept that it is a visual art form.

    I just got finished reading a press release announcing the first performing arts HD DVD from Opus Arte, a recording of the Ballet of the Paris Opera doing Swan Lake.

    I shudder to think what we’ll see when OA starts releasing opera in HD.

  3. Bill Brice says

    I take your point that movie-star manicures on “nuns” would be a distraction. But, I’m more in line with Lisa’s comment, at least as I understand her. Live stage productions — even when they’re seen on screen, DVD, etc — should not be trying to compete with movie-style special effects. I’ve always felt that much of the power of opera is in the very artificiality of its effects. I recently watched the DVD of the Met’s “Parsifal” (from 1995, or thereabouts). That scene where Klingsor’s castle disappears would’ve been way too easy for Industrial Light & Magic to render in totally realistic fashion. But it’s an altogether different thrill, allowing oneself to be persuaded by stage machinary!

    As you point out, this artifice may well put off some people. I’m not sure there’s a good solution there, other than productions whose overall quality and committment somehow bring us willingly to “belief”. Whatever that means!

    Amen to that last point!

    I think people are willing to accept all sorts of things, including things that aren’t at all realistic. They just have to sense that the filmmakers/opera company/whoever’s responsible for the opera film really meant everything they’re putting on the screen. I don’t think anyone intended those nuns’ manicures, and so they’re fair game for doubt and derision. The tone of the production is very strongly realistic.

    And now ask me if I ever expected to type “nun” and “manicure” so many times in the same sentence…

  4. Geo. says

    I didn’t catch the manicure thing, but then this was my first Met moviecast, so I was more into just being able to experience the event rather than catching those details, much as I like to do that when my antennae are more alert.

    But I’d be curious to hear what people thought of the second intermission feature, about the National Council auditions with Speight Jenkins and friends. One fellow opera movie-goer was absolutely livid when we were chatting in the parking lot, at what he felt was the dismissive nature of the remarks of one of the judges towards the singers. It is not an exaggeration to say that my friend was utterly appalled to hear such comments presented on film to a national audience, especially in what is supposed to be an initiative to get more people “into opera”. I can see his point, even though I wasn’t as taken aback as him. I think I was too busy thinking of how the title singer in “Gianni Schicchi” reminded me of Harpo Marx (with singing, of course).

    Thanks for asking about this. I should have said something about it. I thought that intermission feature was, generally, very good, and certainly more truthful than most. By saying that, of course I’m putting myself in the camp opposite to your friend. I thought, first, that many of the singers weren’t good. As is normal for any competition like this! So why lie? Why should newcomers to opera be impressed with blind boosting of the field? If something’s bad, say so. The first thing to establish, I’d think, to newcomers, would be that opera is a normal part of life, in which all the normal things go on. As opposed to a paradise where everything is wonderful, and every young singer superbly talented.

    I wonder which remark your friend objected to. Was it Speight saying that he didn’t think they’d find six singers in this regional competition, who were good enough to go on to the next level?

    If that’s what your friend objected to, he should know that there’s a backstory here. For one thing, Speight is one of the best people in opera — smart, focused, knows his stuff really deeply, and doesn’t put up with crap. That’s why the opera company he runs is so good. He really cares about quality, knows what it is, and acts on it.

    But that’s only the beginning here. It’s not necessarily the best-known fact about these Metropolitan Opera auditions, but each region runs its own competition — funds it, staffs it. Obviously with help from the Met’s National Council (which had a representative at the competition shown on the film), but still the regions get considerably invested in their own piece of the pie. As they should! They’re paying for it. And they love to support “their” singers.

    One result of this, not surprisingly, is that the regions want to have many regional winners. They _want_ to have six. They want to think their singers are good. They don’t want to think their own competition was so paltry that only two singers went on to higher levels.

    But the regional competitions vary greatly in quality. An outside judge, coming into one of them, may know from past experience, or just from intuition (well honed by years in the business), that this region won’t have high-quality singers, and as a rule wouldn’t produce six people genuinely qualified to go to the next round. Maybe Speight was in that position. Of course I can’t speak for him. But when I heard his comment, I smiled to myself, and thought, “Speight always knows what he’s talking about.”

    I wasn’t knocked out by the quality of the singers I heard in that film, I have to say. Maybe the two large-voiced sopranos impressed me the most, not just for what they’d achieved up to then, but for their potential. I thought the African-American singer, so poised and obviously smart — and determined! and with such a fine voice and musical sense — really could go places. I was fascinated to hear Speight’s advice to her — that she had to learn to focus her loud singing. That was especially interesting to me, since twice they showed her singing part of an aria which had a loud climax, but they never let us hear the loud climax. Was that because it was badly sung? I wondered. But since Speight made that comment, I wished they’d given us a chance to hear this singer sing loudly. She should be able to fix this problem, I’d think, and then watch out for her.

    As for Harpo Marx — that’s so true! Thanks for saying it. I kept wondering who that (excellent) singer reminded me of, and that’s the answer. Harpo.

  5. says

    Fascinating conversation here. It shows the Met’s experiment, growing pains and all, is working–the criticisms and responses are much like one would here at an intermission in the opera house, or in a bar after the performance. And everyone’s talking about an opera that took place other than where they saw it. You don’t need to be present to win!

    What a wise and happy observation, Eric! I agree.

  6. says


    Count me in as a fan of the moviecast, having seen four of them this year. I didn’t notice the manicure thing either, but – conceding the points made by you and Lisa/Bill – it was still a great experience. Even though we have a pretty good opera company here in Minneapolis/St. Paul, it’s still a great opportunity to see grand opera on a much larger scale than the Minnesota Opera can manage.

    Quick response to your question on the second intermission feature – I thought the big problem was that it was such an abrupt transition from the end of Angelica. There needed to be some time to decompress, to get back together after the emotion of the finale of Angelica (depending on what you think of that opera as a whole), that the introduction of the feature was just too abrupt – even cutting off the curtain calls. (Although, considering th length of the feature, I understand why they had to do it.) It required you to become interested quickly in it, when what the mind really needed was time savor what it had just seen.

    Thanks, Mitchell. Very interesting points. I hadn’t thought that the intermission feature would require a shift of gears, but of course it did. I guess I’m used to shifting those gears, but as soon as I read your comment, I realized that others might not be used to it.

    I’d love to ask you something. Do you thing these live movie showings are good for the Minnesota Opera? Of course they offer something bigger, and maybe sometimes better (though certainly not always, I’d’ think). But do they also stimulate interest in MInnesota productions? Or could they, if the Minnesota Opera found the right tie-in?

  7. says


    In answer to your question, to quote one of my favorite teachers, “it depends.” A couple of the Minnesota Opera’s productions in the last season have gotten panned for being, essentially, semi-staged concerts – in other words, close your eyes and you hear beautiful music, but if you’re watching the actual production, it’s a very static thing; not compelling theater, in other words.

    In this sense, a danger for the Minnesota Opera, as I suppose it would be with many regional operas, is that people see the big Met productions and are disappointed with what the M.O. has to offer – smaller scale, more minimalist, a little too avant-garde (staging Orazi e Curiazi in the Civil War south, for example).

    But that’s really comparing types and quality of productions, and that’s not necessarily what I meant to do. At the first couple of showings we went to, the audience in the movie theater seemed demographically younger, was excited, enjoying being there (for Trittico the audience seemed much older, make of that what you will), and if one can get this newer audience excited in opera and wanting to see it live on stage, I think that would be very good for M.O.

    To be frank, and I’ll be happy if someone has better info on this than I do, I haven’t seen much in the way of a tie-in between the operacasts and the M.O. – all the publicity has come from Minnesota Public Radio, and I haven’t really seen much of a presence by M.O.

    In short, I think the opportunity for marketing the M.O. is there, and if they can capitalize on the excitement from the operacasts (they expanded showings to two screens in the theater we went to), it could be very good. You know, you don’t have to go to New York or Chicago to see great live opera – come to St. Paul. The operacasts could definitely be seen as competition, but marketed the right way, and with some programming thought by M.O., they could be very good for us as well.

    Very interesting. Thanks. Seems like a missed opportunity to me. I wonder if the Met is interested in collaborating with regional companies — which would be yet another issue. Does the Met actively approach local opera company, offering them the chance to be involved in the movie showings? Maybe it’s just too much trouble, and also wouldn’t draw any larger audience than the Met already has for these things. Still, it seems like a fine, collegial thing to do.

  8. chris says

    On the topic of Intermission Conversations, I agree that much of it is “Self-Congratulory Crap”. But not always; a few years ago I listened to the Met’s broadcast of Handel’s “Rodelinda”, and was absolutely riveted by the discussion, which featured three of the singers (Renee Fleming, David Daniels and Stephanie Blythe) and the conductor (Harry Bicket). They talked about the music, about the specific technical challenges, about other singers in these roles, all in a very serious and non-condescending way. They talked about what Handel’s music meant to them, and about the reaction of the audiences to his music today. It was absolutely fascinating. These were artists talking about their craft in a way I’ve rarely heard. This sort of thing does not have to be reduced to platitudes and self-congratulations.

    I agree. Which is why I get so annoyed when the platitudes begin. There’s so much to say about this music…

  9. says

    iPod Touch 2gen no multi task, hardware will not run it. Same with the iPhone 3g, Got the impression you need at least 32 or 64mb device to run it. He did say some of the 4.0 will work. Be nice to get folders to better organize apps. Not going to buy a new phone, or touch just to get multi task.