The Met invades the movie house

3 minute read
881 Gheorghiu Angela
Puccini meets Indiana Jones:
Coming soon to a Cineplex near you


There's something too easy about driving to the local suburban cinemaplex and parking for free, instead of trekking downtown to the opera hall. There's something shameful about crunching $10 popcorn and slurping a Coke while listening to a soprano aria. There's something awkward about clapping at the silver screen. While $11 seems like a little much for a movie, it's a steal for front-row seats at the opera.

After experiencing the New York Metropolitan Opera's "Live in HD" for the first time, I am torn.

Worrisome was the assertion by many concertgoers that this is better than the real thing. I suspect that those who held that opinion seldom attend live opera (even though the demographics seemed to be identical: white hair and skin all around. So much for the stated purpose of this venture: bringing opera "back" into the mainstream). Even with state-of-the-art audio equipment, sound quality doesn't come close to the real thing. Trumpets don't pierce as much, choruses don't engulf you with their wind, and theatrical gestures and effects aren't as ravishing on screen as they are on the stage. Not even close.

Hear the orchestra warm up

On the other hand, you do get to see the actors' facial expressions up close and personal. And there are no bad seats. As you enter the movie theater, you can even hear the orchestra warming up, and during intermission, you have a view of the seats at the Met, almost as if you’re there. The camera work is very well done, panning and zooming for added dramatic effect (although I would have loved to catch at least a glimpse of the orchestra). As an added bonus, backstage interviews and background clips provide an in-depth multi-media program note.

The Met put on eight of these broadcasts this year and next year will expand to ten. Tens of thousands watch them in dozens of theaters worldwide, from cruise ships to cinemas in Japan, France and Britain, not to mention coast-to-coast in the U.S. I watched Puccini's La Boheme in the same theater that in a few months from now I might watch Indiana Jones. The performance, as one would expect from the Met, was amazing. Ramon Vargas as Marcello was moving, and Ainhoa Arteta as Musetta was scintillating. Less convincing was Angela Gheorghiu as Mimi, who couldn't seem to decide whether Mimi was a victim or a vixen. Her vocal lines were similarly indecisive, especially in the context of Vargas and Arteta's impassioned and direct mastery.

The threat to local companies

The experience was satisfactory. You’re still forced to sit in the dark and listen. In exchange for some missing elements, you get added comfort, closer contact and extra features.

More disconcerting, however, is the potential effect on local opera companies, already struggling for audiences. Will they suffer when operagoers opt for the more professional and less expensive Met at the Movies for their monthly operatic fix?

The true accomplishment of this endeavor is technological. Such high-quality media, broadcast live, would have been impossible a few years ago. For this, the Met must be commended.

Will this change the standing of opera? I already know of a few people who seldom go to the opera but are devoted to this cinema series. The opera's presence at the modern multi-screen movie theater hardly stands out amid the bright posters, bands of teenagers, overpriced concessions, and electric marquees. I trust that the Met will conduct surveys to see if it’s reaching new audiences this way. If it is, well, something is better than nothing. But as a replacement to the live opera experience? Maybe the Met should be careful not to make it too close, too cheap, too easy, too much like the real thing.

To read Diana Burgwyn’s comments about on-screen live opera, click here.

For another view by Steve Cohen, click here.

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