Defending the 12th century since the 14th; blogging since the 21st.

Catholicism, Conservatism, the Middle Ages, Opera, and Historical and Literary Objets d'Art blogged by a suburban dad who teaches law and writes stuff.

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Who was Cacciaguida? See Dante's PARADISO, Cantos XV, XVI, & XVII.

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Monday, October 09, 2006
Opera at home: video or audio? Vote now!

Based on this post from Eve, I see have a big opera post coming up. But, I'd like to ask readers a preliminary question. This question is for opera fans and opera newbies alike.

The question is: which is better -- opera on DVD, or on audio only?

When I was starting, nobody except the highest-ranking TV and movie professionals had home video equipment, so audio (LPs and reel-to-reel tape) was it. That, and going to "the House," meaning the Met (though the New York City Opera could also be "the House" if it was clear from context which "House" was meant). But today it seems most natural to start with DVDs, which are becoming more numerous. And many of them are superb.

But since the arguments are closer than you might think, let me make the case for each side:

* Of course a video medium is better. Opera is the combination of music, drama, and stagecraft: nothing else comprehends all three. That's where opera makes its "value added" contribution in comparison to the printed word, the spoken theatre, concerts (classical or rock), ballet, etc. etc. When you can't get to "the House," DVD (or VHS) is the closest substitute.

Also, it duplicates very nearly the experience of serious opera-goers in the age of the "canonical" opera composers: from Handel through Puccini, no one got to listen to the entire opera before going to see it in the House (except for professionals who could get hold of a piano-score and sight-read the whole thing). Even by the time of the death of Richard Strauss, complete opera recordings were rare -- b/c you needed a U-Haul to lug all those 78s. (Plus, changing discs every five minutes in an opera that lasts two or more hours really sucked.)

Verdi's and Wagner's first audiences got the "audio" and "video" together, so it's those who grew up in the LP/CD-but-pre-VHS/DVD age who are the anomolies.

But on the other hand:

* An audio-only medium is better. One, it lets the music (orchestral and vocal both) make its impact first; this enhances the later DVD or "House" experience. Two, in our age, self-indulgent auteur stage directors are running wild throughout opera, gleefully imposing themselves and their nutter "interpretations" on the composer, the librettist, and the audience. Opera on audio-only CDs cuts these pompous twits out, and lets you be the stage director.

Also, opera on DVD requires two levels of directing: the guy who directs the production being taped, and the guy who directs the taping (e.g., where is the camera going to focus at which moments, etc. etc.) It's interesting that opera on television got nowhere until a genius at this secondary directing emerged: Brian Large, who began in the mid-70s and is still active. He has set the bar high enough so that he has some good successors. But if you get hold of a pre-Large opera DVD, you take your chances. If it was made for TV, it was probably well-directed. But if it was a stage production captured on kinescope, chances are the crew just pointed the camera at the stage and pressed "on" when the conductor emerged.

So, if you care to, please do two things in the comboxes: identify yourself as "fan" or "newbie," then vote "video" or "audio." I'm especially interested in which is better for newbies, but I value opinions from both fans and newbies on that question. Thank you.