Adventures in Opera at Newbridge’s Riverbank

I was an opera virgin before last Saturday night.

I was an opera virgin before last Saturday night.

As an art form, I was theoretically glad it existed, and knew it is responsible for a couple of belting tunes - the Munster anthem ‘Stand Up And Fight’ is derived from Bizet’s Carmen - but that’s where my interest ended. Watching some portly singers huff and puff their way around a stage for a couple of hours was not, on paper, my idea of a good time.

The Riverbank Arts Centre in Newbridge has signed on for a programme sponsored by Classical Arts Ireland, whereby Kildare folk can see performances from some of the most famous stages in the world streamed live, via a HD satellite transmission, to their doorstep. Operas at the Met in New York and the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow will be shown in the next couple of months. So I said I’d give last Saturday night’s showing of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda a go.

The Live in HD performances are streamed to digital cinema screens around the world, and the literatures says that it’s the next best thing to being there.

As an opera newcomer, I’d argue it’s even better.

Firstly, the live feed starts as the audience are settling into their seats in New York, poring through their programmes and gossiping with their neighbours - which breaks the formality of the occasion.

The small crowd of just over half a dozen of us at the Riverbank also settled in for the performance - a story loosely based on the power battles between Queen Elizabeth I of England and her cousin Mary Stuart.

Then the cameras in New York swooped backstage from the grandeur of the theatre, to let us see the ‘inner workings’ of the production, the hustle and bustle and live last minute preparations as the performers prepared to go on stage.

The performance started and the cameras bring the HD audience closer to the operatic performers than they may ever have been before.

This has pros and cons - while you hear every thump and footfall and appreciate the minute detailing of costumes and sets, stage make-up is not meant to be seen at such close quarters and left some of the characters looking a little ridiculous.

The performance is translated and subtitled - another bonus for opera newcomers because you can follow the storyline as it is being sung.

Young South African soprano Elza van den Heever put in an overwhelming performance as the mannish, overbearing Elizabeth and Joyce DiDonato was her perfect counterpoint as the delicate yet strong Mary Stuart. The dramatic clash between the two queens in a fictionalised meeting - they never laid eyes on each other in real life - was gripping. As voices soared, threats and pleadings went back and forth, you could see the strength and delicacy needed to deliver a great operatic performance.

The final execution scene itself was wrenching. And while I couldn’t tell if the singers fluffed a few lines or hit the high notes better than they ever had in their lives, I admit to a few sniffles as Mary mounted the stairs to the scaffold, a lonely figure in a red gown of martyrdom.

The unexpected bonus was the interval, when the cameras again went backstage. Host, American soprano Deborah Voigt, spoke to the main performers as they came off stage, still buzzing with the thrill of performance. The formidable van den Heever turned out to be a giggly delight, giving a shout out to her friends and family back in South Africa - this is opera for the digital and social media generation.

The next Met opera being streamed in HD is Verdi’s Rigoletto on February 17, and we were given a sneak preview of the action and sets, which have been transplanted to 1960s Las Vegas. I’d be tempted to give it a go too. It’s bound to be a better night out than my other recent encounter with on-screen singing - the over-rated Les Miserables.

- Laura Coates