Live Met opera performances fed to movie theater at the Mills
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It all began on Christmas Day 1931, when Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" was broadcast complete, live from the Metropolitan Opera, for the first time, on American radio stations.
Anna Netrebko sings Elvira in the Met's "I Puritani" -- live at the movies.
Click photo for larger image.
The Metropolitan Opera's Saturday afternoon broadcasts quickly became one of this country's great cultural institutions -- recently endangered when Texaco withdrew its longtime sponsorship, but saved by Toll Brothers, which took over support in 2005. These broadcasts are carried locally by WQED-FM.
In 1977, PBS inaugurated sporadic "Live From the Met" telecasts, later changed to taped telecasts as "The Metropolitan Opera Presents," but these have dwindled in number and frequency in recent years.
Nothing, however, has approached the scope and daring of the innovations put in place by the Met's new general manager, Peter Gelb, less than four months into his first season.
With a philosophy that includes "plans to keep the Met connected to mainstream culture and ... help build new audiences," the former president of Sony Classical has telecast the Met's opening night "Mme. Butterfly" outdoors in New York's Times Square and Lincoln Center Plaza, turned the final dress rehearsal into an open house, initiated broadcasts of weeknight performances on the Internet and digital radio, and on Dec. 30, launched -- in partnership with National CineMedia -- "Metropolitan Opera: Live in HD," a series of six Saturday afternoon performances broadcast live into movie theaters.
The venues are limited to theaters equipped with satellite-based digital high-definition projection systems. In Pittsburgh the chosen area is the Galleria at Pittsburgh Mills. With tickets priced at $18 for the single showing, its Cinema 18, with approximately 300 seats, was sold out for the opening "Magic Flute" and nearly full for Bellini's less familiar "I Puritani" on Saturday.
The remaining live HD showings, all beginning at 1:30 p.m., are Tan Dun's "The First Emperor" (a world premiere production featuring Placido Domingo), Jan. 13; Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," Feb. 24; "The Barber of Seville," March 24; and Puccini's "Tryptich, (three one-act operas including the comic "Gianni Schicchi"), April 28. I was told that some of these are already sold out, but tickets may be purchased in advance online: www.cinemark.com (type in "Tarentum" for location and click on "What's new") or www.metoperafamily.org.
Arriving in Pittsburgh Mills Saturday two hours before show time, I noticed several familiar opera lovers strolling around. By noon, a few had purchased tickets and were lining up inside. The theater opens at 1 p.m., and the event is run like a movie, not a live opera. Seating is unreserved, and people are encouraged to buy drinks and popcorn to take into the theater. There were no prominent signs announcing the opera, and the box office personnel seemed unfamiliar with details.
Unfortunately, the average age group appeared to be middle-aged or older -- more or less the same demographics as those who attend live opera locally. For audience building, it might be worth considering offering the less desirable front section seats to students at reduced prices.
Certainly the level of enthusiasm was high among Saturday's attendees. They seemed thrilled to be able to see Met productions in their hometown. By the first intermission, they were praising star diva Anna Netrebko in "I Puritani's" leading role of Elvira along with Maria Zifchak, a former Pittsburgh Opera young artist, in a supporting role, and Eric Cutler -- recently Alfredo in Pittsburgh's "La Traviata" -- scaling the tenor stratosphere.
Many said this experience would spur them to attend more live opera in Pittsburgh or venture to the Met in New York. It was also encouraging to see the support of Pittsburgh Opera, which posted its new "Opera Lady" -- Beth Parker -- at the door, greeting patrons with free mints and brochures.
The only fly in the ointment -- and it may be remedied in the future -- is that the visual element wasn't really high-definition. On the wide screen, colors were washed out and textures were grainy, far less vibrant and clear than what many of us have seen on "Live From the Met" on home TV. On the other hand, the sound was excellent, barring occasional distortion in the loudest moments. Intermission features with Beverly Sills, Renee Fleming and Netrebko herself were thoroughly engaging.
First Published January 8, 2007 12:00 am