The Classical Note: Taking A Chance on Digital Opera

Last Saturday morning, I waded through mobs of overstimlated kids and tired parents at Parks Mall in Arlington before plunking down $20 for a ticket to watch, in one of eighteen screens at the attached movie complex, a live, high-definition broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon performance of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.

A fellow music critic had recommended the Met “Live in HD” experience to me several years ago; being generally pretty busy and an operatic purist besides, I had put off giving it a try. (Since I’m an Angelika/Magnolia sort of guy anyway, it had actually been several years since I had been in a shopping mall megaplex.)

I’m sorry I waited so long.

The sound is superb, and the opportunity to see the performers up close, from angles no audience member ever experiences in person, is invaluable. For the connoisseur as well as the novice opera lover, the concentrated nature of the event (including the naturally relaxed, casual atmosphere of a movie theater) facilitates a deep involvement with the performance. While not replacing the marvels of live performance, the Met in HD is excellent in its own right. In this particular instance, Mozart’s final opera, a complex psychological study that’s generally overshadowed by that composer’s “big three” of Don Giovanni, Marriage of Figaro, and Cosi fan tutte, came across with admirable clarity and immediacy.

Will the Met in HD wipe out live performances, or endanger regional companies? Not likely, any more than recordings wiped out live concerts or operas. People still like to see a live show—whether it’s a football game or an opera, there’s just something about being there in person.

Does Met in HD build new audiences for live opera? Probably not significantly—the “crowd” of about ten other opera goers who joined me in the otherwise empty theater all seemed to be pretty experienced listeners. One might speculate that the audiences at these broadcasts are made up of opera addicts who want a more frequent operatic experience than is provided by the live main stage productions offered by America’s regional professional companies, or who may find the effort and expense of attending a live performance to be daunting.

I counted eighteen theaters in Dallas, Fort Worth, and surrounding areas on the official list of the hundreds around the world that regularly present the Met in HD. In most cases, there is an “encore” (what we used to call a rerun) several weeks later on a weeknight (handy for the opera buff who misses a favorite show), and the Met even provides more reruns in movie theaters of favorite productions from recent years during the summer off-season. The accompanying commentary (provided with sparkling wit and enthusiasm by Susan Graham last Saturday) and even the shots of the audience meandering into the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center are entertaining and add to the “feel” of an operatic performance.

Eight productions remain for the Met Live in HD season for 2012-13 including Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini and Berlioz’s Les Troyens, both works unlikely to be performed live in these parts any time soon. Complete information is available on the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD website.