Opera in the age of a pandemic assumes a cutting spectacle. For example, isolated in my home on March 27, I streamed Teatre dell’Opera di Roma’s production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Unlike the popular Met Live in HD series, the Rome Opera broadcast from limited camera angles with poor sound quality, the conductor’s hand often popping up unintentionally into the shot of the stage. Clearly, the company was doing what it could to make opera available while the city in which it was filmed, ravaged by COVID-19, suffered catastrophic tragedy. The story playing out on screen—a stark production of funerals, underworlds, and furies—was meant as an escape, and perhaps in part it was, but it was also an inescapably sharp reminder of the reality outside.
Scholars have long debated the merits of broadcasting opera on television, weighing accessibility and affordability against the challenges of translating a live experience on screen—one that has achieved clichéd stardom by way of famed transformative experiences from Emma Bovary to Pretty Woman’s Julia Roberts. One of my favorite literary epiphanies is in E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, when Miss Abbott, seeking to champion morality and purity, is overcome by a “magic in the encircling air” after a performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Although she tries to shut out the sound by closing her bedroom window, she is troubled all night “by torrents of music” that unmask her English values and reveal that they stem from “a joyless, straggling place, full of people who pretended.”
The current slew of streaming opera during shelter-at-home orders shifts the conversation dramatically, where the stakes now center on the financial survival of companies that are desperately trying to shore up centuries-old claims of art’s human value in troubling times. Fabricating performance environment has never been more essential to a performance’s success and calls for a pressing examination of what environment means to performances: how it is created, how it is consumed, how does it remain spectacular?