As this is virtually in the backyard of the church where I am music
director, this is of particular interest to me.
The Boston Globe
Opera fans enjoy the Met live -- in Framingham
By Jeremy Eichler, Globe Staff | January 1, 2007
It was like something out of a C.S. Lewis novel, or maybe an
Aldous Huxley fantasy. On Saturday afternoon at the AMC Framingham
cinemas, plenty of families were out to see films like "Rocky
Balboa" and "Casino Royale." But if you ventured down one corridor
and turned left into the theater across from "Charlotte's Web,"
you were instantly transported to New York City, to the Metropolitan
Opera. Or at least the Met was transported to you.
There it was, the grand house on the big screen, just minutes
before the opening of the Saturday matinee. You could watch the
New York operagoers ambling in to find their seats just as the
Framingham movie audience was doing the same. People mostly
skipped the popcorn. One moviegoer said she felt underdressed.
This was the opera, after all.
Welcome to the Met's latest feat of high-tech operatic populism.
Thanks to an initiative championed by the company's new general
manager Peter Gelb, the Met's Saturday performance of Mozart's
" The Magic Flute" was simulcast in high-definition to roughly
100 theaters across North America, Europe, and even, with a time
delay, Japan. It was the first in a series of broadcasts that
will run through April 28. Framingham's AMC was the only
Boston-area theater to carry the first broadcast, but theaters
in Marlborough and Swansea will soon be joining the action --
and no doubt more will do so in future seasons if the series
continues. It certainly should.
It's a bold idea that will bring the Met's offerings to much
wider audiences who, thanks to geography or ticket prices, or
both, are prevented from attending the real thing. Tickets for
the Framingham screening cost $18 and sold out in a single day.
(Bellini's "I Puritani" on Jan. 6 and Tan Dun's " The First
Emperor" on Jan. 13 have also sold out in Framingham.)
To prepare for my first experience of HD simulcast opera, I
stopped by a live performance of "The Magic Flute" at the Met
about two weeks ago. It was not exactly a rigorously controlled
experiment, as the earlier performance featured a different cast
and a different version of the opera. (Saturday's broadcast was
the Met's new family-friendly "Magic Flute," an abridged
English-language version that lasts about 100 minutes.) But both
performances were featured on Julie Taymor's fantastical production,
with its virtuoso puppetry, dancing bears, and a majestic bird
that flies slowly across the stage.
Compared to Row N of the Orchestra, the view from Framingham,
all things considered, was excellent. The broadcast was streamed
in Dolby surround-sound, making it easy to enjoy the labors of
the impressive cast, not to mention the Met orchestra's polished
playing under James Levine. The camera brings you right into
the center of the action, with lots of detailed close-ups of
singers and a much more intimate view than I had in the house
itself. An opening sequence during the overture even whisks you
backstage through the labyrinth of dressing rooms.
The broadcast's virtues notwithstanding, local opera companies
need not fear that the new technology will undercut the hunger
for the real thing. There is still no substitute for directly
experiencing an unamplified voice sailing into the rafters.
During Saturday's broadcast, the acoustic properties of the Met's
auditorium did not really come across -- there is no aural
illusion of being present in the house. And visually speaking,
the 10 cameras rolling on Saturday actually overdid the close-ups
and tight shots, making it difficult to appreciate the grandeur
of the Met's stage and the actual scale of the sets. It is
certainly interesting to see the details of Kabuki-style makeup
used in this production, but bringing the viewer too far inside
the action can also generate a cognitive dissonance as the mind
subconsciously starts to wonder whether this is an opera or a
film, and which visual conventions should apply. Is all that
puppetry high-tech stagecraft or very low-tech special effects?
The crowd on Saturday seemed to be made up mostly of seasoned
opera veterans, several of whom said they had been to the Met
before but not in a long time. Watching the performance in real
time seemed to bring the crowd an extra jolt of excitement, a
sense of participating in the event albeit remotely. A few
people even clapped after impressive arias. And there were no
shortage of them from a cast that featured Matthew Polenzani as
Tamino, Ying Huang as Pamina, Nathan Gunn as Papageno, Erika
Miklosa as the Queen of the Night, and Rene Pape as Sarastro.
It is, of course, impossible to tease out the broader implications
of the medium from one screening alone, but it should be fascinating
to see the technology's long-term impact on the opera world --
sociologically, demographically, and artistically. One has to
wonder, for instance, if the numbers of virtual viewers begin
to dwarf those of the live audience, will singers begin to sing
and act differently? Will their physical appearances become a
bigger factor in casting decisions? Will directors begin altering
their ideas to cater to the big screen? The new medium certainly
provides an interesting twist on the recent trend toward engaging
filmmakers in opera direction. Whatever the case, for these
broadcasts to succeed without undermining the art form they are
designed to help, it seems clear that the big-screen imagery
must remain merely a vehicle to access the staged performances,
rather than a visual end in itself.
To be sure, there's no doubting the democratizing potential of
the new medium. It's also refreshing to find a trend in new
media that doesn't tie us more tightly to our lone desktops but
preserves at least some semblance of the communal nature of the
public ritual. Or at least for now. I haven't heard of watching
live opera performances on iPods or cellphones -- but it seems
only a matter of time.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at [log in to unmask]
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company