Two weeks ago, I had read about the enthusiastic campaign to democratize opera via cinema in The New York Times. For some time now, the Metropolitan Opera has been broadcasting live opera to movie theatres, and this year, the Times reported, the bandwagon will become more crowded. “The Royal Opera House in London plans to transmit 10 opera and ballet performances in Europe this season and another 18 outside the continent. The Italian opera houses of Parma, Florence, Venice, Bologna and Milan…are beaming their productions.”
The campaign has not been without debate, and the Times article quoted members of the opera establishment who cannot bring themselves to support the trend wholeheartedly. At first, this sounds odd, because opera has been available on DVDs and as television programming for years. But those media were only ever pale substitutes for the real thing, created for people who couldn’t get to the opera itself. With today’s remarkable quality of live relays and warm digital sound, an anxiety has been born that cinematic opera will not be a substitute but a replacement.
Screen presence: Margazhi Raagam stars T.M. Krishna and Bombay Jayashree in a staged concert.
The Times, in fact, quoted Gerard Mortier, the Belgian director, voicing that very fear: “Why go to the cinema? Come to the opera.” For many people, though, going to the opera involves sitting in the nosebleed sections of a cavernous hall, barely able to spot the actors emoting, and still paying $20 (around Rs980) or $30 for that experience. To pay $10 for comfortable seats and see the players tower over you in vivid detail seems to be very obviously the better value proposition, whether in or out of an economic slowdown.
Recently, the Carnatic music world had its own first brush with the cinematographed concert: Margazhi Raagam, a theatrical release that was essentially a film of the singers T.M. Krishna and Bombay Jayashree in staged concert. The movie released in the middle of Chennai’s December music season, and it was still playing in the middle of January when I went to watch it. I had held off for that long only because of my own version of Mortier’s observation: Why would I watch the film during the season when I could catch either of the musicians in live concert on practically any day I wanted?
Margazhi Raagam is a beautifully made film. The sound is pure and precise, the sets are occasionally showy but otherwise aesthetic, and the edits are knowledgeably executed, choosing with care which member of the ensemble to focus on at which particular point in time. But the first hour failed to stir me; perhaps I had entered the theatre convinced that nothing could replicate the feel of a live concert.
Just before the intermission, I found reason to change my opinion when Krishna started a song in the Raga Khamas, one of my favourite ragas and one that he sings particularly well. As he built his rendition towards a climactic cascade of notes, I found myself unconsciously straightening in my seat, leaning forward so as to not miss a single phrase of music, and thrilling physically to the verve of his performance—exactly as I had done numerous times in numerous live concerts. The Khamas reminded me that a concert is predominantly about its music. There is certainly something to be said for the immediacy and interactive energy of the live performance, but the power of music to move need not be the live concert’s exclusive preserve.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org