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  • “Guarda un po”: Seductive Visuality in Remediated Opera
  • Julia Sirmons (bio)

To articulate the phenomenon I call seductive visuality, I begin with a kiss—or, rather, the suggestion of a kiss. The moment comes from the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD broadcast of L’elisir d’amore in 2012. It occurred at the conclusion of “Prendi, per me sei libero.” After the final note of her declaration of love, Adina (Anna Netrebko) grabbed Nemorino (Matthew Polenzani) for a full-throttled kiss. The blocking (which I had seen “in the house” at an earlier performance) was simple: Adina’s fervent embrace toppled the couple onto the ground.1 But on the day of the broadcast, the designated cameras (under the direction of Live in HD veteran director Gary Halvorson) failed to follow the pair in their tumble, leaving them out of frame for a moment. Eventually the couple stood and reappeared. Netrebko and Polenzani held their embrace for applause, and we saw (in a close-up) Netrebko’s lipstick smeared across her chin. This telltale smear suggested we had missed something thrilling in that moment of absence— no feigned “stage kiss,” but the “real thing.” The lipstick smear was visible for just an instant, before Polenzani leaned forward to wipe it away, while Netrebko bit her lips, trying to keep from laughing.

To the more distant audience in the house, this gesture must have seemed entirely in character, a sign of Nemorino’s tenderness toward Adina. But those of us watching on a movie screen saw it clearly as an improvisatory act of chivalry, one performer protecting another. We HD spectators had a privileged perspective.2 We witnessed a momentary rupture of the theatrical illusion, then saw it skillfully restored. This was, as Jean Baudrillard writes, a gesture that “[did] not appear to be a part of a strategy, nor even an unconscious ruse” but nevertheless “[took] on the unexpected depth of seduction.”3 The momentary revelation of the performance’s underlying vulnerability was seductive in its accidental display of its unanticipated virtuosity. It paradoxically strengthened the performance’s charm, emphasizing the skill required to save the show. It intimated a private, conspiratorial viewpoint through the movie screen.

This moment, which I remember with particular delight, is lost forever. If you watch this performance on DVD, or stream this title on the Met’s “Opera on [End Page 297] Demand” app, the “mistake” has been concealed: the fall to the ground, the rising, and Polenzani’s gesture are all captured by another camera in a single long shot. It is a spectatorial memory as ephemeral as that of any performance seen live in the theater, but one that also evokes the cinema, recalling the “ellipses” that followed Hollywood kisses during the censorship of the Hays Code, when the kiss functioned as a synecdoche for sexual activity.4 During the livecast, the medium of the screen presented this moment with particular characteristics of display and loss, which nevertheless concord with opera’s own seductive sway over its traditional, “in the house” audiences.

This lost moment reveals the particularities, and particular pleasures, of what I will call remediated opera. I derive this term from Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s influential concept of remediation, which they define as “the representation of one medium in another.”5 Remediated opera will thus encompass the many ways in which a live operatic performance can be presented in another audiovisual medium. This includes livecasts and recordings, either for cinemas or on TV, as well as DVD recordings and streaming services. In remediated opera, the remediated spectator’s experience is seductive, and it exemplifies the power of a new, hybrid form, one whose visual style fosters senses of both spectatorial intimacy and distance.6

I argue that this kind of moment, in its slippery, conspiratorial character, is a feature, not a bug, of remediated opera. Its visual tease is an oscillation—between different mediated modes of address and spectatorship—that produces the phenomenon I call seductive visuality. Seductive visuality encompasses, and plays with, the virtuosic mastery and the unpredictable nature of live operatic performance, alongside a push-pull oscillation between proximity and distance. This push-pull...


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