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WIDE ANGLE: A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, IN MY PYJAMAS

Covid-19 has forced the closure of theatres around the world, but now audiences can enjoy performances online for free

Updated 03 May, 2020 06:19pm
A forthcoming production of La Traviata | The Met Opera
A forthcoming production of La Traviata | The Met Opera

The coronavirus pandemic has forced the suspension of performances and the closure of theatres around the world. But ironically, as some prestigious companies respond by making past performances available online, a global audience is being introduced to previously often inaccessible opera, classical music and ballet — all from the comfort of their homes



The first time I attended a Western classical music concert was in New York. Whenever I think back to that night, I’m reminded of many things. But most of all, I remember paying close attention to everything around me, making mental notes. That is, until the music started and I could not be bothered about anything else.

I was only attending this concert because I had received free tickets, courtesy the scholarship programme that was also footing the bill for my education in the United States. A middle-class Karachiite as I was, living stipend-to-stipend in New York, a night at a classical concert was not exactly a usual Saturday night for me. Everyone else at the concert was much older, richer, (mostly) whiter and better dressed. So I carefully observed everything. I wanted to not feel like an outsider when — or let’s face it, if — I returned to such a venue again.

***

As if I wasn’t already feeling like enough of an imposter, an older woman, wearing a pearl necklace, came and sat on the empty seat next to me. I quietly pushed my dirty canvas tote bag under my seat.

Soon, the conductor took the stage and everyone applauded.

When the applause finally stopped, there was a moment of pin-drop silence from the audience. The orchestra, already in position, started to play, and the woman next to me closed her eyes. The musical notes seemed to transport her elsewhere.

She was abruptly transported back when someone in the row ahead of us coughed.

The woman glared at the cougher, tapped him on his shoulder and gave him a cough drop. I recognised the cough drop. These were placed in clear bowls on counters outside the auditorium.

Coughing during performances is against the etiquette of classical concerts and so these cough drops are sometimes available for free, to avoid any audience disruptions. In the age of Covid-19, one is used to people getting alarmed at the sound of a cough. But in a pre-Covid-19 world, I was utterly fascinated by the exchange.

None of this matters, of course, if you are watching online — as thousands around the world are right now. More on that later. But attending a classical concert, as an outsider, can feel like a performance itself.

The usually busy Lincoln Center in New York | Reuters
The usually busy Lincoln Center in New York | Reuters

Audience disruptions in theatres are not an uncommon occurrence. In his 2013 dw.com article, ‘What’s behind the coughing at classical concerts?’ Peter Zimmermann wrote: “In our age, a night out for a symphony or an opera can amount to an experience that’s more confining than pleasurable. That was perhaps less the case in Mozart’s era, when such events were associated with promenading, lively chatter and having a drink or two.

The 19th century brought changes, with rules of etiquette playing a stronger role in the concert experience. And those who dared to spurn classical music altogether ran the risk of being ostracised by the economic, intellectual and moral elite.”

As someone who has grown up watching Bollywood, whenever I think about the opera, I’m reminded of a scene from the 2001 blockbuster Dil Chahta Hai. Shalini (Preity Zinta) takes Akash (Aamir Khan) to the Sydney Opera House to see Troilus and Cressida. Clearly, Akash is out of his element. “Hum yahan kyun aaye hain? [Why have we come here?],” he asks Shalini twice.

Andreas Wagener, in his paper, ‘Why do people (not) cough in concerts? The economics of concert etiquette’, stresses that concertgoers should avoid “inept noises” such as coughs. “Yet, coughing in concerts occurs more frequently than elsewhere, implying a widespread and intentional breach of concert etiquette,” Wagener writes, before attempting to deconstruct the phenomenon.

The 30-page-long paper proves that some feel very strongly about the subject.

Arguably, these rigid, but unwritten, rules make many feel unwelcome at such musical events, considered high art. Musical institutes in countries like the US have made efforts to make the art form more accessible. They offer discounted tickets, special rates for students and even programming targeted at children. Nonetheless, the barriers to entry remain high.

But as the coronavirus pandemic has forced the world to take pause, it has also done something noteworthy for classical music.

The pandemic, it seems, has made the art form a little more accessible for the general public, and an international audience. Of course, venues around the world have closed their doors and cancelled their programmes. But many musical institutions have made programming available online for free. This is introducing a whole new global audience to these otherwise exclusive events.

A 2012 production of La Traviata, recently made available online | The Met Opera
A 2012 production of La Traviata, recently made available online | The Met Opera

This past weekend, I immersed myself into performances by the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic and the New York City Ballet (featuring ballet performances set to the music of some revered maestros).

While watching Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata performed at the Met Opera in 2012, I caught my reflection on my laptop screen as the curtain dropped after the first act. There I was, watching a rendition of the much-loved 1853 opera, in my PJs while slurping instant noodles. I could not help but laugh at the visual.

***

In his opinion piece, ‘Public musicology: How to talk about opera at a time of crisis’, Samuel N Dorf, an associate professor of music at the University of Dayton, says, “As I write this under a government-issued stay-at-home order (it’s late March 2020), I realise that many of us won’t be able to attend a live musical performance for some time, let alone a pre-performance lecture.”

Dorf goes on to say that providing a synopsis of an opera’s plot, while highlighting key musical moments tends to get monotonous quickly. “So in recent years,” he writes, “I have challenged myself to develop pre-performance lectures that are not only informative and accessible to a general audience but relevant.”

The band continued to play as the Titanic sank. “They were heroes,” Harold Bride, a wireless operator on the ship who survived told The New York Times in 1912. “They were still playing Autumn [when the ship went down].”

This may be something programmers are also thinking of when deciding what online streams to share with the public. As I watched La Traviata, I could not help but find many themes to have new meaning in today’s world. While reading about this particular opera, I kept coming across critics and opera lovers calling the play timeless. They say this is because, owing to censors, Verde was not allowed to give the opera a contemporary setting. And so it was set in the 1700s instead, but without clear indicators of time. This quality has allowed operas around the world to continue adapting the play for over a century.

Watching an opera by an Italian composer, set in Paris and performed in New York, one feels like time has stood still. At a time when thousands have died in Italy, France and the US, and so many others continue to battle coronavirus, even an operatic tragedy feels like escapism.

A publicity still from the New York City Ballet’s online spring season | NYC Ballet
A publicity still from the New York City Ballet’s online spring season | NYC Ballet

La Traviata, which translates to ‘the woman who strayed’, tells the story of Violetta, a courtesan. The opera starts with her throwing a lavish party to celebrate her recovery from an illness. One of the party guests, a nobleman named Alfredo, expresses his love for Violetta and asks her to leave her profession and come live with him. But this unlikely pairing is doomed from the start, their happiness short-lived.

Violetta’s struggles to escape an illness has a different impact in 2020.

But what makes the opera truly relevant is how it captures the woman’s changing relationship with time. In the 2012 Met Opera rendition, this is illustrated by a minimal set. The stage is mostly white, with a large clock at one end. The clock sometimes stands still. Sometimes it races. And other times it is forcefully stopped by the characters.

“I love how the curtain rises on a group of dancers already in motion, which to me shows that maybe they simply couldn’t contain their enthusiasm and began dancing, perhaps a bit too soon,” he says. “I also think it beautifully mirrors how dancers around the world are feeling right now: nothing can contain their love and passion for dancing.”

Of course, much is being written about our changing relationship with time under lockdown. Recently, this very newspaper carried a story titled, ‘The rupturing of the clocks’ by Sadia Khatri, trying to unpack the same.

Interestingly, the way we experience the opera at home, as opposed to at a theatre, is also very different in terms of time. At home, one can watch all three acts together and be done in a little over two hours. But at the theatre, there is a 30 minute interval after the first act and a 20 minute one after the second act. This is to allow the singers to rest their voices.

Catching your favourite opera online can also feel like a race against time. The nightly opera streams are made available only one night. Each week’s schedule is posted on the Met Opera website in advance.

***

As someone who has grown up watching Bollywood, whenever I think about the opera, I’m reminded of a scene from the 2001 blockbuster Dil Chahta Hai.

Shalini (Preity Zinta) takes Akash (Aamir Khan) to the Sydney Opera House to see Troilus and Cressida. Clearly, Akash is out of his element. “Hum yahan kyun aaye hain? [Why have we come here?],” he asks Shalini twice.

New York City Ballet’s digital season will continue till May | NYC Ballet
New York City Ballet’s digital season will continue till May | NYC Ballet

As the opera begins and the singer starts singing, Akash looks at the older woman next to him and starts pretending he is screaming while being choked. Shalini stops him and explains the scenes being performed on stage. With Shalini’s guidance, Akash begins to understand the love story unfolding before him. By what is presumably the third act of the opera, he is teary-eyed.

While the main purpose of this scene is to make Akash see that he loves Shalini, his interaction with the opera and how it evolves is telling. At the end of the night, Akash once again resorts to mocking the opera singer, calling her fat, when Shalini asks him a tough question. He clearly uses humour as a defence mechanism.

We sometimes also mock what we do not understand.

Understanding the opera, understanding classical music or high art are not skills one is born with. They are honed over time. And the opportunities to do so are not available to most. The free streams provide a safe space where those with an interest, but limited knowledge, can familiarise themselves with the art form, without the fear of being judged.

***

The dancers twirl around and my eyes move with them. It’s almost like watching them paint detailed compositions in the air. And then they freeze, and I’m brought back to reality. The dance of the spinning wheel begins on my screen as the video starts to buffer.

While watching streams online, one of my favourite things is seeing the audience during the curtain call. People are on their feet, some are holding binoculars. The best seats in the house are almost certainly out of most people’s budgets, so many have to accept seats with partial views and sit behind pillars, in exchange for a cheaper ticket.

But not during an online stream.

In fact, in these streams, you sometimes see bird’s-eye views and angles that would be impossible to witness live at the theatre, regardless of where you are seated.

The Sydney Opera House | Reuters
The Sydney Opera House | Reuters

It is also bittersweet to see the musicians in the orchestra pit. One cannot help but feel nostalgic seeing a conductor standing and the orchestra sitting across him in a semi circle. They sit close to each other; each section having its unique sound, but coming together to create music that can give one goosebumps.

In a socially distant world, as online experiences like these streams bring us together, we also yearn for the day we’ll be able to safely leave our homes and enjoy everything we love. For the day when we can once again play music together, hold hands and dance.

***

Over at the New York City Ballet’s website, last week saw the premiere of choreographer George Balanchine’s Allegro Brilliante, set to music by Tchaikovsky.

The company’s artistic director Jonathan Stafford introduces the piece before it begins. “I love how the curtain rises on a group of dancers already in motion, which to me shows that maybe they simply couldn’t contain their enthusiasm and began dancing, perhaps a bit too soon,” he says. “I also think it beautifully mirrors how dancers around the world are feeling right now: nothing can contain their love and passion for dancing.”

Seeing some of the finest dancers in the world perform — to a score by a composer whose melodies and symphonies continue to inspire, over a century after his death — is nothing short of a treat.

The dancers twirl around and my eyes move with them. It’s almost like watching them paint detailed compositions in the air. And then they freeze, and I’m brought back to reality. The dance of the spinning wheel begins on my screen as the video starts to buffer. I go outside my room and reset the WiFi.

When I come back, the video has started playing again. The dancers are swaying. The orchestra is playing.

It’s almost as if they never stopped.

***

The band continued to play as the Titanic sank. “They were heroes,” Harold Bride, a wireless operator on the ship who survived told The New York Times in 1912. “They were still playing Autumn [when the ship went down].”

In times of crisis, we turn to the arts to make sense of the world around, or simply for brief moments of escape.

While some might be virtually attending classical concerts and museum tours, others may be binge-watching Netflix content. But even away from the screens, artists are still finding ways to inspire and create meaningful moments of respite. Some of the most moving stories being shared on social media show singers and musicians making music together while standing on their separate balconies.

In a post-Covid-19 world, we will need the arts, arguably, more than ever. And so, all the online streams from across the globe are also requesting people to make donations if they can afford it.

While one hopes larger international institutions such as the Met and New York City Ballet will still be in a better position to stay afloat when all this ends, local arts organisations in countries such as Pakistan might need a lifeboat or two to deal with this unprecedented economic blow.

Published in Dawn, ICON, May 3rd, 2020