Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Opera and MTV

It wouldn’t ever occur to me to put “opera” and “music video” together in a sentence, but that’s exactly what I found one day while bumming around on YouTube—a soft-focus, staged video of Angela Gheorghiu singing “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly. I looked around a bit more and found several professionally produced aria music videos, mostly by Angela and Anna Netrebko—it’s an interesting example of how technology impacts opera performance. Most of Netrebko’s videos have been taken down off YouTube because of copyright issues (they’re part of a DVD she sells called “The Woman, The Voice.”) However, “Song to the Moon” from Dvorak’s Rusalka is still up, featuring Anna in a Marilyn-style white swimsuit, floating on a pool toy. Check it out: Song to the Moon

If this left you scratching your head, you’re not alone. This video weirded me out, primarily because opera singing is so physical, but here Anna is lip-synching to a recording of herself. This is nothing new for pop music—voices are auto-tuned, filtered, and mixed beyond recognition; but in opera, the voice is not messed with or even amplified. It’s real, yo—and it’s not always pretty. In order to get the notes, singers make fairly bizarre faces (Cecilia Bartoli is a great example.) If you’ve ever taken voice lessons, you’ve probably been told to hold your nose, stick out your tongue, and bare your teeth to try and achieve good vocal positioning and tone. Once I was told to “act like a badger,” and it totally did the trick. It’s strange to see Anna on film when her voice is so clearly coming from somewhere else. Also, it’s a bit boring—gorgeous though Anna is, it’s not quite enough for me to watch her splash her hands through rippling water for extended lengths of time.

In another example, Angela Gheorghiu performs “Habanera,” from Carmen


Let’s take it frame by frame.
0:02: A giant red rose floats across the screen. The first of many.
0:07 Angela appears, silhouetted, in a sea of floating (albeit normal-sized) red roses.

0:08: L’amour est un oiseau rebelle… etc. etc. Angela, unlike Anna, at least looks like she’s really singing—she’s breathing properly and focusing energy in the front of her face. However, I still can’t quite take her seriously, and I think it’s because of all the floating flowers.
0:54 Angela’s head of shiny, shiny hair abruptly leaves the field of roses and reappears in front of bright lights.

Stop looking at me like that, Angela! I believe you, I promise. Love is exactly like a rebellious bird.

1:05 A mirror appears, and Angela soulfully inspects her reflection.
1:32: A phantom chorus begins to sing the refrain. Angela looks in the mirror some more, and then looks at me, serenely. She has nothing to do for a good twenty seconds except wait for the chorus to finish. At least they didn’t cut to the giant rose again.

2:25 - Angela begins the second verse. The camera pans out to reveal her sitting on a flight of stairs. Behind her is a painting of a bull - between that and the roses, I we've all the items that veritably scream, "Carmen!" Perhaps some castanets will appear lying on a table somewhere.
4:01 - The chorus sings the second refrain, and rose petals rain down as she triumphantly finishes the piece.

4:28 - It's baaa-aack!

As with “Song to the Moon,” this video left me wanting more from the story—most of the video is just a close-up of her face. It’s no coincidence that the two singers trying out this format are Netrebko and Gheorghiu—they’re both widely known for being hot. Angela Gheorghiu has a quote on her website from the New York Sun calling her “the world’s most glamorous opera star,” and Netrebko has been quoted as saying that her voice has gotten so big because of “the microphone between my tits.” More than ever before, sex appeal is a factor in determining which singers hit it big—it’s no accident Nathan Gunn is always called on to perform shirtless. Not that I’m complaining. Opera may not have been intended for the close-up, but Peter Gelb points out with his HD Simulcasts at the Met that it’s the way of hi-def or the way of the dodo.

Anyway, even if the operatic music video falls a bit short right now, I think Gheorghiu and Netrebko are on to something—a short-form, digital medium for opera has really cool possibilities. Granted, my stance is usually in favor of more opera in all forms, all the time.

In other news, Renee Fleming also makes music videos, for her other life as a pop star. 

- Audrey Chait, Brown Universit

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