Up in front, Tosca is singing her passionate heart out, about to betray her man. She's standing in front of a Metropolitan Opera set, filling the hall with her rich, luscious soprano. Then it's intermission - and suddenly you're looking at men in jeans shift enormous scenery while Tosca strides away to her dressing room. Next to you, audience members shuffle in and out with snacks and coffee.
It’s opera, yes, but with a difference: This is The Met Live in HD, broadcast live every month from New York in local cinemas. To many, it’s a great way to see opera. Yet it raises a lot of issues, and while it screens in Seattle, Federal Way and Olympia, it’s yet to appear in Tacoma.
“It’s just great,” says Tacoman Keri Costello, a devoted live-operagoer who used to go regularly to HD shows until her work schedule changed. “The sound quality’s really good; it really is just like being there live.”
Costello’s not alone in loving it. In the three years the Metropolitan Opera has been broadcasting shows live, audience numbers have risen dramatically. From an initial eight countries and 240 theaters, the Met Live in HD shows are now seen by 2 million people at thousands of theaters in 42 countries. The concept, which debuted in December 2006 with Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” came about originally as a response to declining ticket sales since 2001. The outlay in equipment alone was huge – a tech suite full of monitors and remote control for the many in-house cameras – plus technicians, editors and an entire production/marketing department. But now, say producers, the Met Live in HD is both financially self-sustaining and a major vehicle for public relations.
Watching a Met Live screening, you can understand the popularity. Yes, the show is up to four hours long, depending on the opera. But at what other live opera can you watch while wearing jeans and fleece, sipping a latte and Tweeting to friends? The parking is easy, the timing (10 a.m. in the Northwest) is accessible. You get the view from the Met’s $250 front-row seats for just $25. You get stage-width shots plus zooms so close you can see the sweat and makeup, and audience shots to make you feel like you’re really there. And during the two intermissions you get what no one at the Met’s actual performance is seeing: live interviews with singers fresh off the stage, with a backdrop of the guys shifting the Met’s phenomenally huge sets, itself quite a spectacle.
Yet just as movies take audiences away from live theater, there’s a potential issue with Met HD broadcasts soaking up live opera audiences. Although the Met HD producers claim they encourage viewers to see live opera, even seeing broadcasts as a marketing opportunity for local opera companies, they don’t have any data yet on how live attendance has fared in cities with broadcasts. OPERAAmerica, however, a national service organization for opera, reached some interesting conclusions in a study done of the 2007-08 Met HD season. Three out of four attendees had gone to local live opera recently, and 27 percent said they preferred it, compared to 15 percent who preferred HD.
Alvin Alexander Henry, director of marketing and communications for Seattle Opera, maintains that HD hasn’t caused any audience drop-off. “A lot of the attendees to the HD broadcasts attend Seattle Opera performances on a regular basis,” he says.
But there are definitely people choosing HD over live. Millie Parmelee travels from Enumclaw to Federal Way to see every single HD broadcast. She used to go to Seattle or Tacoma Opera shows, but not any more. “I just love it,” she says during the “Tosca” intermission. “The price is great, and it’s really interesting to watch backstage.”
Like the old PBS broadcasts, Met Live gives people an affordable chance to learn about opera. Zari Semerdjian is a new opera buff and volunteers at Tacoma Opera. She goes to live opera whenever she can but also sees quite a few HD shows.
“I’ve been to the Met and HD’s not the same,” she says, “but it’s an opportunity to see spectacular operas and incredible artists that I would never get a chance to see.” And far from luring her away from live opera, she says, “it fuels my desire to go.”
There are other issues with the Met Live. Some reviewers have complained that it affects everything from casting to sets, putting too much weight into what will work on screen rather than on stage.
Like other broadcasts, it can fade in and out.
Some attendees, like Semerdjian, complain about the camera work, and indeed the viewing experience tends to lean toward the close-up rather than the big scene. Met officials, though, say the only thing it affects is attention to costuming detail, and the benefit of close-ups is that, as Semerdjian puts it, you can see all the faults – including wig mishaps, stagehand swearing and the rest.
But maybe the most important problem with the Met broadcasts for South Sounders is that, right now, it isn’t in Tacoma. Broadcasts are scheduled at major theaters in Federal Way, Seattle, Olympia, Auburn, Kent, even Bainbridge Island, but not here. Why?
“It might happen some day,” says Philip Cowan, director of The Grand Cinema. “The Grand audience is probably the Met audience, and the time works well for us – I wouldn’t have to bump other movies. But I don’t want to be in competition with Tacoma Opera. And the biggest thing is getting the wide broadband feed set up, buying the equipment.”
Even if you have to leave town for it, however, the Met Live in HD is an experience worth having. Seeing opera dressed with intimacy, subtle facial expressions and backstage gossip is something you can’t get in a big opera house. Seeing it with a latte in hand is even better.
Says Costello: “Nothing can replace live opera, but this is pretty darn close.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568