How to Become an Opera Lover: Go to the Movies!
Experience live opera from Lincoln Center via HD broadcasts at a theater near you
John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle. Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.
Several years ago I started going to the opera again. I’m back enjoying something I thought was no longer a part of my life. For this I can thank Peter Gelb, the general director of the New York Metropolitan Opera. In 2006 he launched the Metropolitan Opera HD Live series — the best thing to happen to the art form since supertitles. Each year, from October through April, the Met broadcasts a dozen operas to more than 800 movie theaters across the nation and around the world. They've proved wildly popular. Ten million tickets have been sold.
These live Saturday matinee performances start at 12:55 p.m. EST. You can still hear the operas on the radio, a tradition that began in 1931. But seeing them in a movie theater is a whole other experience. Of course nothing beats going to an opera house, but I have to tell you, I love slumming it.
I went last Saturday to the Met HD season debut, Donizetti’s love story, L’Elisir d’Amore. It starred soprano Anna Netrebko as a wealthy Italian farm owner and tenor Matthew Polenzani as a young villager who falls in love with her. (This Saturday, Oct. 27, it's Verdi's Otello with Renée Fleming). Just before the Met's gold curtain went up, the camera scanned the crowd as it was getting settled. At first, I felt a tingle of envy. But then I thought about all of my advantages over the live audience.
I can dress as casually as I like. I can get up if I need to and I can bring snack bar goodies or coffee to my seat. My multiplex in Minneapolis has a section where you can be served cocktails and bistro-style food during performances. That sure beats trying to chug down a glass of cheap champagne and eat a stale chocolate chip cookie in the Met lobby during intermission.
My seat couldn’t be plusher. With stadium seating there’s no worry about someone with big hair blocking my view. And when the opera is over, I don’t have to fight for a cab. I just stroll to my car. Best of all, my ticket only cost $22! Compare that to a Met orchestra seat, which can be hundreds of bucks.
(Just know that these HD simulcasts often sell out, so order tickets in advance. Some theaters offer reserved seating. If not, get there early to claim a seat. The performances are rebroadcast on the second Wednesday night following a Saturday performance.)
Opera singers don't use microphones, so the sound you hear in an opera house is pure. But I have to say, I love my movie theater's state-of-the-art sound system. I don't miss a word or a note. And the supertitles are large enough that I never have to squint.
There are so many aspects to opera beyond singing and music, like sets, costumes and dance. The cameras add yet another dimension to the experience, one the Lincoln Center audience misses out on.
They bring you on stage. The camera lets you see every facial expression of the singers, most of whom can act nowadays. Sometimes, however, the camera gets a little too close, as when you’re peering down their throats during an aria. Many times I've felt like a dentist inspecting their bridgework. Many opera singers actually look the parts they’re playing. Some Met faves are movie-star sexy, like Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann and Russian soprano Anna Netrebko.
The cameras also take movie audiences backstage at intermissions. At every performance a Met opera star serves as the host — usually its soprano Deborah Voight. With a mike in hand, she greets the performers as they come into the wings. “I apologize to everybody,” said soprano Natalie Dessay, who starred in last season’s La Traviata. “I missed my high note.”
Last season’s backstage interviews were the stuff of real-life opera. Just days before the Met’s opening of Wagner’s Siegfried, its star dropped out. A young unknown tenor from Texas named Jay Hunter Morris stepped into the title role, marking his Met debut. The role of Siegfried requires five hours of continual singing, in German no less. Could Hunter, who looks like a good-old-boy, and has a downhome accent, pull it off?
He did so, brilliantly, making Met history. Those of us watching the HD broadcast got to see him being questioned as he came off stage between acts. We even got to follow him into his dressing room, where he would collapse on a couch. Like an Olympic athlete, Hunter talked about how he was maintaining his stamina and energy level. And at one point he made an emotional call-out to his wife and baby boy back home.
It’s not just the singers who address the HD audiences. At last Saturday’s L’Elisir d’Amore the chef who prepared the food for a banquet scene in Act II showed us what he had whipped up, and why. At John Adams’ Nixon in China broadcast last spring, several of the actual ambassadors who accompanied the 37th president on his historical trip to Beijing in 1972 were interviewed.
The backstage cameras also let you watch the sets being moved and changed. This was really cool last season as we got to observe the technicians program the computers that operated the 45-ton set for Wagner’s Ring Cycle — a mechanical beast that cost $16 million to build.
I usually go to the broadcasts by myself. It’s a comforting thing to do on your own: just settle into your seat and let the soaring music and voices wash over you. And all your cares, too.
Lately, though, I’ve been convincing my friends, none of whom are opera buffs, to come with me. I’ve yet to have one of them walk out or say they were bored. In fact, they all want to go again. When I asked my friend James, who’s a nurse, what opera he’d like to see, he chose Gotterdamerung, the last opera in Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle. Yikes, was my reaction. I tried to convince him to try something easier, like Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Nope, he wanted Gotterdamerung.
As the six-hour opera was coming to an end — the world having been destroyed by flames — I figured I’d better wake James up. I hadn’t heard him move during the last act or two. But he was wide-awake and in awe. As the singers came on stage to take their curtain calls he cheered them. “I could sit through this again,” he said, slowly getting up from his seat, an empty popcorn bag in his hand.