Glyndebourne: one of the names in the British calendar. Up there with Wimbledon, Henley and other occasions which involve large quantities of strawberries being consumed in extremely specific clothing. With the added attraction of some of the best opera in the world. Streaming a performance across the internet raises even more questions about what experience is being offered than the recent spate of cinema screenings of plays from the National Theatre. For many people Glyndebourne is an event as much as an opera house, and watching online is, as one commenter put it on the Guardian website, “an option for the desperate”.
From this point of view, watching the feed was an exercise in absence. The shots of the audience as the orchestra tuned up, the interval feed of people in evening dress wandering around the lawns, all underlined the fact that we were not actually there. And that they were. But when it came to the actual performance, the superb camerawork gave us a view of the performers which even the best seats in the house couldn’t provide. Admittedly there’s a trade-off – obviously it’s a different experience being part of a breathing and reacting audience – but for a claustrophobic chamber piece like The Turn of the Screw, this format was ideal. Every crazy eye and wavering look came straight to the viewer, along with brilliantly crisp acoustics. I’ve always read The Turn of the Screw as basically a ghost story, taking the possibility that it’s all in the Governess’ head as a pious bit of ambiguity bigged up by New Criticism. Seeing Miah Persson sing the role in a torrent of close-up shots threw that assumption out, and made it genuinely uncertain in a way I probably wouldn’t have got if I’d actually been in the auditorium.
For opera fans who weren’t worried about missing the odd note, there was also the option of keeping Twitter on in the background, and swapping comments with other people watching the performance. Much as I like cramming into the bar during the interval and picking over the first half, I don’t usually have access to what the New Yorker’s critic Alex Ross has to say (“I love the eerie “wealthy country house” ambience. Oh wait, the opera hasn’t started yet.”) or the shoutings of the composer Nico Muhly, fresh from his latest opera, (“So sexy to use alto flute and bass clarinet; it’s a weird mannered fauvism”…”More naked kids! Y’all would have marmite-and-feathered me out of the country if I had half as many.”) So, opera online: it’s not for everyone. But it’s got a better shot at being for everyone than most opera houses.
This article first appeared at California Literary Review, August 2011