For opera singers, there used to be no experience more daunting than performing at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. But in recent years, the Met has made the opera world’s most nerve-wracking experience even more intimidating.
In 2006, under the leadership of new General Manager Peter Gelb, it began to broadcast a few of its Saturday matinee performances to movie theaters in high-definition video. What started as a little experiment quickly grew into a runaway success beyond anyone’s imagining. Now, when the singers walk onstage to perform in a Saturday broadcast, they’re performing not just for the Met’s 3,800-seat house but for a vast unseen audience in more than 1,700 theaters in 54 countries.
Performing in the Met’s “Live in HD” series produces a level of intensity that star countertenor and part-time Atlantan David Daniels knows well. Last year, he took the lead role in the Met’s new production of “The Enchanted Island,” a pastiche of Baroque operas based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which was broadcast in January 2012. This year, Daniels will sing the lead in the new Met production of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” which will be broadcast around the world, including to theaters in the Atlanta area, this Saturday afternoon.
“In the back of your mind, you can’t help but know that it’s an HD performance,” Daniels says of the experience, an especially challenging one for performers of Baroque operas, which often clock in at over four hours. “Last year, there was a lot of stress. It took me awhile to get used to. It was nerve-wracking, but I think it will be easier this time around.”
Although he regularly performs on the Met stage, Daniels says that an HD broadcast seems like a thing apart, starting from the very moment he walks through the stage door. “It all feels very different,” he says. “The makeup is different; you’re wearing less of it because of the HD. You’ve got cameras backstage. You’ve got big monitors in the hallway. There’s certainly an ‘event’ feel about it. And you’re certainly aware.”
He says that not being able to see the cameras this time around will probably make things run a little more smoothly for him. “I probably could see them a little more in ‘Enchanted Island.’ I won’t see them at all in ‘Giulio Cesare,’ because there’s so much bright white side lighting. We’re blind up there. And I don’t have my glasses on, and I don’t wear contacts. You just get into the singing of it, and you get into the story of it.”
Fortunately, it’s a role and story he knows well. Daniels has played the lead in Handel’s famous version of the Julius Caesar and Cleopatra story many times at opera houses around the world since he premiered in the role in 2000 at the Florida Grand Opera. “With life experience and maturity and longevity in this career, I just learn more and more about the role,” he observes. “I’m closer to the age that Caesar supposedly is. Singing the same role over and over again, I bring a more mature approach to it.”
“Giulio Cesare” was Handel’s greatest hit — it’s still his most popular work — and this production has won rave reviews for its exuberant and colorful interpretation of the classic. “It’s a long afternoon, but I don’t think audiences will be aware of that because it’s just so entertaining,” Daniels says of the new production. “It has the perfect amount of comic relief to the big heavy dramatic arias. Everything is included. There’s dance, beautiful colors, and everything that’s onstage is something you might see during Handel’s time. There’s nothing mechanical that would not be able to be in an 18th-century production.”
He says he’s particularly fond of the staging and choreography during his Violin Aria, which brings a violinist from the Met orchestra onto the stage. “We do a duet while they serve me tea and give me a manicure onstage, getting me ready to go see Cleopatra.” And the Cleopatra he’s preparing to see is none other than French soprano Natalie Dessay. “She has such a great energy, and she does it differently every night,” Daniels says. “We play off each other so well. I always look forward to walking out onstage and seeing what she’ll do.”
Performing in a Met broadcast is a challenging experience in the already demanding, globe-trotting life of an opera star, so he says he especially values the time he gets to spend at his home in Atlanta, a loft condominium on Peachtree Street in Midtown. After “Giulio Cesare” wraps up, he’s looking forward to spending a relaxing six weeks in Atlanta this summer before he heads for New Mexico to prepare for the role of Oscar Wilde in the world premiere of Theodore Morrison’s “Oscar” at the Santa Fe Opera House.
May and June in Atlanta are a perfect time for a break, because the singer is a huge Braves fan. “I tell everyone I moved to Atlanta because my mother lived close by, but it wasn’t about her,” he jokes. “It was about the Braves. Chipper was always my favorite player, but I’ve been watching the Braves since Henry Aaron and Ralph Garr and Jerry Royster. We’re quite good this season, and I’m looking forward to getting back.”