Filming an opera: Rebecca Tansley on Semele On Screen

Posted Tuesday 27 Apr 2021

Filming an opera: Rebecca Tansley on Semele On Screen

This stunning new opera film, directed by Rebecca Tansley (The Heart Dances), was filmed in 2020 at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell. The story explores the sensual love triangle between Jupiter (King of the Gods), his wife Juno, and his lover, the mortal princess Semele. As with all mythological stories, this is a story of love, passion, revenge and tragedy – set to some of the most beautiful music Handel ever wrote.

We talked to Rebecca about getting creative with cameras in the cathedral...

Why are people going to enjoy this film?

It's so accessible, and it’s a lot of fun. The way NZ Opera staged it really blurs the boundaries between the audience and the performance. Opera is perceived as very European, but this performance feels very much Aotearoa New Zealand, our place. I think people will be surprised. And it's contemporary in its story in terms of celebrity - Semele has her Amy Winehouse moments!

How did it all come about?

In the year of Covid, all the opera houses around the world were closed, there were no performances. New Zealand Opera was the only opera company in the world able to perform. During lockdown TVNZ broadcast the only other NZ Opera performance ever filmed, the 2015 performance of Tosca. NZ Opera was encouraged by that and decided to film Semele.

How was filming this live performance different to others you’ve filmed?

If you’re doing a performance on a stage the placement of the cameras is kind of obvious – they have to capture what’s happening on stage. But for Semele there were performers coming up and down the aisle, they were up on the cathedral’s side balconies, and even outside. So we had had to think about how to capture all that action and not obscure the audience’s view.

Greenstone TV really made it possible with their support right from the start, from back office pre-production and budgeting, facilities, and line production right through post. Their support made the project possible for NZ Opera and it was fantastic for me as an independent film maker to work with them. Normally I’m making thermoses of coffee as well as directing, so it was nice to have that wider whānau behind me.

How did you get all those camera shots?

I had to get a bit creative. A lot of the action happens in the aisle so I enlisted my daughter and her friend to sit in the audience and capture some shots on their cellphones – which is actually in keeping with the whole idea of celebrity so it works in the context.

The bed is quite important in this opera and I knew I wanted to get a camera above it. To do that we had to remove one of the lighting fixtures in the ceiling and replace it with a camera on a gimbal. That was one of the more adventurous camera positions.

We also had to cover great distances. I was certain when planning it that I wanted the audience to feel up close and personal. It’s a large venue so we needed lenses on the cameras that could cope with the distance required to get close up shots. This was all on a budget that didn’t really allow for lenses like that!

We had to muddle through those things ourselves because we couldn’t get any grips for that day – they were all busy.

And I should actually have given Line Producer Rochelle Leef a camera credit because we had to capture the motorbikes outside the cathedral. I didn’t have any spare operators, so Rochelle did it.

There was a lot of pressure on you to get it right on the day...

Yes – there was no flexibility! There was one performance. I made sure that the camera operators came to the rehearsal and so had a rough idea of what to expect and what angles they’d be getting - that was a part of the planning that paid off.

The DP Simon Raby did an enormous amount of research to make sure everything would work remotely.

What we managed to achieve given the constraints - I’m really proud of it.

How did Covid affect things?

At one stage during the second lockdown the cast of Semele was rehearsing with masks on, and we were watching them on Zoom trying to figure out where the action would be. It was totally crazy.

Then after that lockdown there were only a couple of weeks before the actual performance. Once I knew main thrust of action of opera I planned the camera positions.

If you look really carefully you’ll see one or two people in the audience with masks on – we’ve captured a historical moment!

Would you do something like this again?

I’d love to do it again it was a lot of fun. I can say that now. I’d never have thought I’d have the chance to film live opera.

Buy your tickets to see Semele On Screen now in Auckland and Wellington:

Wellington Premiere 29 April

Auckland Premiere 13 May

Any proceeds above the event costs will go towards funding more home-grown opera on the big screen.