- Operatic Configurations in the Digital Age
Let me start with a seeming paradox. Beginning in December 2006, the rise of "Live in HD" broadcasts from New York's Metropolitan Opera (and, soon thereafter, other major houses) has made some commentators worry, once again, about the survival of opera. As New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini paradigmatically argued in 2013, broadcasts into the cinema offer a fundamentally different experience from prior forms of operatic remediation because of the former's combination of audiovisual immersion and communal—even live—viewing. Thus, Tommasini feared, not only might HD broadcasts lure audiences away from the opera house, but they also blur a sense of "what the real thing is."1 The cinema is cast as opera's angel of death.
Ironically, a number of film scholars have simultaneously raised concerns about the future of the cinema itself, which they see endangered by the recent proliferation of digital technologies.2 Partly in response, Francesco Casetti in 2015 (re)defined cinema by focusing not on its enabling technologies but on the experience it affords—an experience constituted by three fundamental aspects: an enclosed environment, the onscreen creation of a world, and "an audience immersed in viewing."3 In his analysis, this cinematic experience has now "relocated" to new devices and situations, summarily marked by a loss of darkness. Hence Casetti's verdict: "No longer capable of aiding the other arts, it is now cinema that is in need of assistance."4 This diagnosis could make us ponder whether HD opera broadcasts perhaps promote cinema more than they do opera; whether the novel content and added boon of a live event, simulcast (by now) in over seventy countries, lend assistance and cultural cachet to an ailing technical medium.5 But I want to emphasize instead Casetti's own rescue operation—his call to adjust our idea of the cinema: it lives on, he holds, in multiple medial configurations, and it reveals its essence precisely through these new relocations. Such a conceptual sleight of hand is elegant; but it would surely not appease Tommasini, concerned as he is with the embodied live performance that the cinema has arguably always been missing (at least since the rise of sound film).
A similar rhetorical move to Casetti's has recently been made by Thomas Elsaesser, in what he has dubbed a "historiographic 'perspective correction'" to confront the ruptures inflicted on cinematic history by digital media. At the end of his [End Page 130] media archaeology of digital culture, Elsaesser proposes that the cinema assumes "the historical as well as theoretical status of art, assuring it of a future thanks to its being an intermezzo, a detour and obsolete."6 Cinema, in other words, now shares with opera its social and medial obsolescence, evinced by its constant remediation. From the perspectives of Casetti and Elsaesser, then, cinema in the digital era appears no longer as opera's threatening other but as its younger suffering cousin.
Despite such tentative rapprochements between cinema and opera in the virtual age, however, I want to suggest that digital relocations don't cut to the core of the operatic form in quite the same ways as they do for the cinema. This is not only because of opera's long tradition of being accessible outside the opera house (by means of piano transcriptions, organ-grinders, collector's cards, and so on), or because of the widespread appeal of its digital formats, or even because a simulcast still depends on a live performance to be relayed.7 But what we might call opera's "screenification" has also been paralleled by a less visible opposite trend: one that radically embraces opera's theatrical, material, experimental, interdisciplinary, and embodied roots. I am thinking of the recent upsurge of alternative or "indie" opera companies whose very names already proclaim their commitment to the live, performative event. Let's look only at New York, that cradle of HD broadcasts. By 2010, it is true, the would-be director of LA's now-acclaimed independent company The Industry deemed New York audiences too conservative for his visionary endeavor to create "experimental productions that expand the definition of opera."8...