It’s almost opera season. I sat down to talk with Malcolm MacKenzie, who will be singing the role of Schaunard “the musician” in San Diego Opera’s new production of La Boheme.
I asked him about opera in general and then sat back and let him hold forth. Here are some highlights.
Malcolm MacKenzie: “When people complain about opera not being realistic then they’re missing the point. I suppose I have issues with the whole focus on realism that is happening in opera right now.”
“I don’t want to sound like a kvetch but, for instance, in the first scene of Boheme when we’re in the garret Marcello’s work area has an ash tray with three used cigarettes and about five burnt matches scattered around it. I guess that’s supposed to add to realism but I’m thinking the whole time, ‘Who’s this for?’. I mean it could be for me but that kind of stuff just seems like wasted effort in presenting this [La Boheme].”
“You see a lot of movement toward cinematography in theater, musicals, and opera. What gets me is the symphony concerts that now have visuals. Nobody can just sit and listen to music anymore. I’m starting to sound like an old grouch--now get off my lawn!”
“Some of that could be because of the broadcasting in HD of operas. In general I think that’s good. There are somethings you have to do in those circumstances to make things televisable. Hand props traditionally don’t look good up close. Costumes don’t traditionally look good up close. Now with the resolution of photos and the resolution of video being so high, the look of the prop is becoming important. I think what we’re losing is that, in the end, it is an opera.”
“It is an acoustical experience. There’s no amplification and you can’t frame a shot like you can in cinema. You can’t pan over to the side but you see it, you see them trying to frame a shot as if it’s a movie. It doesn’t make for good opera because you’re possibly losing the acoustics of the stage in order to get the image. It might look more real but it doesn’t always serve opera. I’m an old fogy.”
“I live to serve the old artform because I think it was a mature artform and doesn’t really need to be reinvented. Opera isn’t a movie. My voice doesn’t sound good up close. It’s not supposed to. I’m not kidding. My voice has been developed to sound good at a distance. If you come up close my voice has weird noises in it. It has irregularities. It’s not harmonically aligned when you’re close but when you get into a space it sounds right. I’ve been working on creating that for a long time. As soon as someone approaches me with a microphone I tell them, ‘That’s not going to sound right. I’ll be unhappy, you’ll be unhappy, everyone will be unhappy. Stand back there. Thank you.’”
Part two coming Thursday.