Recently, during the telecast of La traviata, soprano Natalie Dessay, who seemed to be suffering from a cold, missed the optional but traditional high E-flat at the end of her first act aria, "Sempre libera" ("always free"). When Deborah Voigt interviewed her during the intermission, Dessay apologized for missing the note — she was obviously upset about screwing up in front of such a vast audience. Voigt seemed startled that any singer would publically admit such a lapse, then praised the courage of Dessay's admission, and reminded us that anything can happen at a live event. (A short time later, Dessay's vocal problems forced her to bow out mid-opera.)

The intermission features are not only interviews with the leading performers (most of whom probably would rather be — or ought to be — resting between the acts), but with backstage figures: wardrobe mistress, stage manager, choral director (Donald Palumbo, who years ago led Boston's Chorus Pro Musica), animal trainers. These can be delightfully informative, and it's fascinating to watch the elaborate set changes taking place during the intermissions. That's something you can't get in the opera house. Some of the celebrity interviewers — soprano Renée Fleming, I'm sorry to say — seem merely scripted. But others are more relaxed and intimate — like the endearing mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, or Verdi soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who seemed genuinely interested in the animal trainers she was talking to.

I'm so used to telecasts being taped in advance, I sometimes forget that I'm watching a live performance. But I feel this only in the movie theaters. I never feel it when I'm listening to a Met broadcast on the radio. And I didn't feel it back in the 1980s when PBS was airing Live from the Met telecasts for the home screen. (I'll never forget the unedited flash of rage on soprano Renata Scotto's face when at the end of her big aria in Verdi's Luisa Miller someone in the audience screamed "Brava, Callas!" I was right there.)

One of the more imaginative telecasts was of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which is a very static and slow-moving work. So I liked it when the telecast included an array of split-screen effects, juxtaposing singers who aren't next to each other on the stage. But my fellow audience members by and large hated being reminded that they were watching this on a large television screen. They'd rather maintain the illusion that they are actually in the opera house. Many people applaud at the end of an aria or of the whole opera.

Of course, the biggest issue is the "product" itself. The quality of the telecasts is usually dependent on the quality of the production itself. Watching the telecast of John Adams's Doctor Atomic was actually more satisfying than seeing it at the Met. In person, there were so many characters similarly dressed (the scientists for the Manhattan Project), I couldn't always tell who was singing. But close-ups on the big screen (and later on my own television) made the action easier to follow.

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  Topics: Classical , Opera
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