The Vienna State Opera pushes the repertory system to its limits: its 2016-2017 season will comprise 216 performances of 53 different operas – that’s more different productions than in any other opera house in the world. With no possibility of increasing the number of performances (the house is also home to chamber concerts and the Vienna State Ballet) and with over 99% of its tickets sold, that leaves the Wiener Staatsoper with a problem: how to comply with the inevitable demand from patrons, sponsors and funders that they should increase their reach? It’s a problem that any opera house would like to have, but none the less one that demands a solution.
Live at Home isn’t the first streaming opera service in the world – the Met on Demand service was launched in 2012 – but Christopher Widauer, the man in charge of the service, is clear about what makes it different: “It’s Live, Live, Live”. The intention is to foster the same sense of occasion and frisson of anticipation that you get when going to an opera in the physical house, showcasing the productions and singers of the moment, rather than to give an experience of browsing a video library. Concessions to convenience are made, however: the start time is arranged to be prime time according to your time zone, and you have 72 hours from the performance time in which to watch it.
As you would expect, there’s plenty of German language opera in the programme, with a Ring Cycle performed every year (this year’s features Bryn Terfel as Wotan, the fine pairing of Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Petra Lang as Brünnhilde and the fearsome Falk Struckmann as Hagen). Richard Strauss – in his time a co-director of the Staatsoper – is much beloved, with Otto Schenk’s classic production of Der Rosenkavalier (“as inescapably Viennese as Sachertorte”) a particular favourite. Another traditional number is Schenk’s Die Fledermaus, performed on New Year’s Eve as it is every year, with a surprise star guest at Prince Orlofsky’s ball. But befitting Vienna’s heritage as the imperial capital of Northern Italy in the heyday of bel canto, there’s a substantial chunk of Italian repertoire. At time of writing, six out of eight Verdi operas are still to come and two Puccini operas out of the five, along with a sprinkling of opere buffe.
Within the last couple of years, the availability of Ultra High Definition TVs has increased to the point where over half the TVs now sold are UHD/4K capable. Widauer is an enthusiast for keeping the technology up to the minute: the first UHD broadcasts were made in 2015 and he is now working on the first broadcasts in “HDR” (High Dynamic Range). You may not have heard the term, but you’ll have seen the problem it solves: when it comes to the range of brightness to darkness, the human eye can span three times the range of standard video technology. When you look at a scene containing both bright highlights and deep shadows, either the highlights are blown out or the shadow detail is lost. HDR doesn’t solve this completely, but especially with the latest TVs, it gets very close. The first HDR broadcast has just happened: La Traviata on 29th November; for the moment, only Samsung TVs are supported since there isn't a global standard.
The Staatsoper choose a distinct filming style. The time honoured way of filming opera is via a series of relatively short cuts and substantial use of close-ups. Meyer disapproves. He sums it up acerbically as “I don’t like to see the inside of the mouth of Ms Harteros,” as well as complaining about cuts of duets which “feel like watching Wimbledon”. Better, according to Meyer, for the viewer to see a shot of the full stage and therefore be able to choose where to look, rather than to be subject to the vagaries of a video director. However, pre-UHD TVs lack the resolution to make this kind of long cut of a long shot attractive; the compromise adopted is to allow the user to switch at will between two streams: one of the long shot and one of the cut version, although even here, Meyer speaks about using a longer-than-usual “Viennese cut”, with smooth movements, lower cut frequency and no extreme close-up. Currently, around 15% of viewers choose the long shot.
Subtitles are provided in English and German, to be augmented in September 2017 by Czech, French, Italian, Japanese and Russian. The Staatsoper feel that the main screen should not be contaminated by subtitles, so to get these, you are required to download an app onto your phone or tablet. For some productions, the app lets you switch to the Staatsoper’s score of the work, with the pages turned for you, so you get to see exactly what the conductor does – including, for example, the score of Fidelio complete with Gustav Mahler’s annotations. You can also use the app to view the full video (which many people will wish to stream to a TV via, for example, Apple Airplay); for this, you will need to activate the app with a code that you fetch from the “My account” screen. Electronic versions of the printed programmes are also available, but these require a separate app. Be aware, however, that at present there’s no subtitle solution for the on-demand streams.
The process may feel a little clunky, especially in English since you keep hitting bits of the screen that haven't been translated. However, you only need to go through it once, and once you're done, the Live at Home programme does what it says on the tin: it brings into the comfort of your living room a close relative of the experience of attending a weekly première in Vienna. What’s not to like?
This article was sponsored by Wiener Staatsoper