Miércoles 30 de Mayo de 2007, Ip nº 193

Opera invades the multiplexes
Por John von Rhein

Will a generation hooked on giant plasma TVs, MP3 downloads and iPods come together to view opera in darkened movie houses? Will they crave Puccini with their popcorn?

Apparently so, as attendance figures for the Metropolitan Opera's first "Live in High-Definition" broadcasts suggest.

The new regime at the Met is betting the multiplexes will attract enough opera fans new and old to make its movie-theater broadcasts a permanent adjunct to its services while boosting attendance for regular performances in its theater.

In what may prove to be the most important new wrinkle in opera since surtitles, America's oldest and biggest opera company this season is beaming live, high-definition performances of opera by satellite from New York to movie theaters across North America and in Europe for the first time.

The real-time moviecasts are part of general manager Peter Gelb's plan to move the once tradition-bound company into the 21st Century and make its artistic wares more accessible to younger and more adventuresome audiences.

"We are creating a whole new model, using modern technology to connect the Met live to a global audience," said Gelb, whose central mandate when he officially took command in August was to reverse a six-year decline in attendance.

What began as an experiment with a moviecast of Mozart's "Magic Flute" late last year has proved remarkably successful.

Good numbers

The six opera productions simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera House this season have been averaging about 67 percent attendance in as many as 1,222 participating theaters in North America and Europe, including three in the suburban Chicago area, according to the Met. Some theaters have sold out as quickly as the Met could add them.

Each opera either has had, or will have, an encore showing, with Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" completing the current series May 15.

What's more, more than 500,000 tickets have been sold to the simulcasts, more than 50,000 of them in North America for the April 28 screening of Puccini's "Il Trittico," making it the 15th top-grossing movie in the nation last weekend.

"My goal is to create an economically self-perpetuating system where we can continue to expand and hopefully even provide a revenue stream for the Met and all its unions and artists," Gelb said.

For the sake of comparison, I attended the April 23 performance of "Trittico" at the Met and the April 28 movie-theater broadcast of the same work at the 350-seat Regal Lincolnshire cinema in suburban Lincolnshire. Both were sold out.

I came away convinced that great opera performances in the theater are not necessarily great performances at the cinema -- it all depends on how astutely the digital technology is being applied at the local end.

The Regal Lincolnshire is one of only three suburban Chicago theaters equipped with the high-definition digital projection and Dolby Surround Sound facilities required to present the operas; the others are in Woodridge and Crystal Lake.

The AMC River East 21 cinemas in Chicago also are rigged for HD and Dolby, and have screened some, though not all, of this season's Met operas on a rerun basis. Still, the paucity of participating movie houses accessible to opera fans living in the city and on the North Shore remains deplorable.

Worth every penny

So what about the show itself? Broadway director Jack O'Brian's new production of Puccini's operatic triptych, with massive, realistic sets by Douglas W. Schmidt, is the biggest and one of the costliest in Met history. Every penny has been well spent. In the theater, I was impressed by the scale and depth of the set pieces for "Il Tabarro," "Suor Angelica" and "Gianni Schicchi." If this be conspicuous consumption as only the Met can mount, then long live wretched excess!

For the moviecast, the performance was shot with a dozen cameras that constantly cut between multiple angles, close-ups, long shots, medium shots and bird's-eye views of the stage. As seen on a 50-foot movie screen, every detail was magnified so that it was difficult to get a sense of the actual size and scale of the production. But the camera revealed stage perspectives available only to the movie house audience. This was not filmed opera, but a live, multimedia art form in and of itself.

The performances sported identical casts and conductor (James Levine), and there were few, if any weak links musically. There was a tour de force performance by Stephanie Blythe in the three mezzo parts, passionate singing from soprano Barbara Frittoli in the title role of "Suor Angelica" and sturdy work from Maria Guleghina, Juan Pons and Salvatore Licitra in "Il Tabarro."
The big disappointment was the dim, murky picture quality. What happened to the brilliant red-orange sunset over the Seine that Georgetta apostrophizes in "Tabarro"? What became of the blinding celestial light that finally envelops the redeemed Sister Angelica? On the big screen, almost every color was reduced to a shade of gray, black or muddy brown, while the deep vistas were flattened out. "High definition"? Make that "No Definition."

(I have heard no complaints from people who attended the screenings in Crystal Lake and Woodridge.) I told Gelb the problem with the Lincolnshire showing, and he sounded genuinely distressed.

"One of the problems we face is that the quality of the projections are not always uniformly up to the high technical standards they are supposed to be," he said. "We transmit a pristine image from the Met and spare no effort or expense in making these broadcasts an extraordinary experience."

But that, Gelb admitted, presumes the local playback systems linked to the satellite feed are functioning properly.

New systems being added

He assured me that he would look into the problem and said that newer projection systems are being added to participating cinemas and other theaters as they join the Met's expanding network. (The manager for the Regal Lincolnshire could not be reached for comment.)

Gelb, of course, has a vested interest in seeing that the broadcasts are properly handled in movie theaters, given the expansion of the series from six to eight operas next season, and also given the expense: Each opera costs from $850,000 to broadcast -- this in addition to the $1 million-plus it costs the Met to mount a production in its own theater.

A number of Lyric Opera regulars attending the Lincolnshire "Trittico" and they said they find the broadcasts to be a nourishing supplement to their normal diet of live opera. The $18 ticket price, they agreed, is a great bargain, considerably cheaper than the $179 the Lyric charges for a top ticket.

The idea has taken the opera world by storm: The Met moviecasts were a major talking point at the service organization Opera America's national conference last week in Miami. And symphony orchestras are beginning to pick up on it. The Philadelphia Orchestra (which will perform in Orchestra Hall May 16) recently became the first major orchestra to transmit a live concert to multiple large-screen venues in the U.S. and Europe.

Digital broadcast technology offers untold possibilities for audience development and educational outreach that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for one, could profitably explore.

I told Gelb I hope the Met will ride herd on local exhibitors to deliver the state-of-the-art picture and sound quality that the artistic product and we paying customers deserve. He vowed the company would do just that.

Once the startup problems are resolved, these "HD Live" transmissions can begin to deliver on the promise that an art form dating from yesterday can reinvent itself for tomorrow. The Met moviecasts are an idea whose time has come.

  06/05/2007. Chicago Tribune.