Loving the Opera in HD: Once Controversial, Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts for Movie-Theater Audiences Have Become a Gateway for New (and Returning) Fans

By Weisgall, Deborah | The American Prospect, March-April 2014 | Go to article overview

Loving the Opera in HD: Once Controversial, Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts for Movie-Theater Audiences Have Become a Gateway for New (and Returning) Fans


Weisgall, Deborah, The American Prospect


On a Saturday afternoon last December, I picked up my ticket for the Metropolitan Opera's Falstaff and hurried down the backstage corridors to a trailer behind Lincoln Center. The crew of Live in HD, the Met's popular series of broadcasts to movie theaters, was crowded into the truck before an array of monitors. On the main monitor, the soprano Renee Fleming, in a bronzy, shimmering dress, stood in the wings rehearsing her intro.

"On this snowy day in New York," Fleming began and recited information: Falstaff, which premiered in 1893, was the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi's last, sublime work, a comedy based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. This was the Met's first new production of the opera in five decades, and James Levine, the Met's music director, was back in the orchestra pit after an absence of more than two years.

When Fleming finished, you could hear broadcast director Gary Halvorson asking for a lighting adjustment; he brought the camera forward. Fleming sang a little run and smiled. "I feel a top note coming on," she said.

A few moments later, Halvorson bounded up metal stairs into the truck. The crew took their seats in front of the control panels. Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera's general manager, had told me earlier that Halvorson--a Juilliard-trained pianist who in addition to directing music, dance, and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for television directed 55 episodes of Friends--possesses "the instincts of a jet-fighter pilot." That makes Gelb, who sits just behind him, the co-pilot. These broadcasts have defined Gelb's tenure at the Met; he introduced them within months of taking over in 2006.

It was time for me to take my seat in the theater. Meanwhile, at movie houses in 12 time zones, audiences had staked out seats, too, and munched on breakfast or dinner while waiting for the show to go live with shots of the red and gold theater and sounds of the orchestra warming up.

The Met broadcasts have brought opera to larger audiences, and they have made the company a superpower of opera, or an 800pound gorilla--savior or scourge, depending on your point of view. Many musicians and opera lovers won't think of going. They reject a mediated experience--a camera dictating what they will see, music piped in through a sound system. For several years, I would not go, either.

I love opera. It's the family sport. My father, Hugo Weisgall, composed them; opera filled his life. We entered through the stage doors, at the City Center on 56th Street and at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, where the New York City Opera performed my father's work. I attended my first performance--Verdi's La Traviata, in Prague--in utero. There was no Jr adventurous opera company in Baltimore, where we lived when I was was small, so my father started one, with simple sets and young singers, nothing like the grand opera in Vienna he'd seen as a boy.

I sat blissfully under the piano while singers rehearsed in our livingroom. Music vibrated through my bones, and my ears hurt; I was terrified and enchanted by those same singers unrecognizable on stage in makeup and costume. I went to operas by Mozart, Britten, Menotti, Gilbert and Sullivan, Verdi, even Wagner that Anti-Semitic-Son-of-a-Bitch, which is what my father called the uber-romantic composer whose music drowned you with tsunamis of sound and who, along with his more humane rival Verdi, defined opera in the 19th century, when it was the Western world's most popular art form.

Every city had its opera house; tenors were heartthrobs. Operas marked important occasions--Aida was commissioned for the new Cairo opera house, which was built in anticipation of the Suez Canal. Verdi closed rehearsals of Rigoletto so that people wouldn't start whistling "La donna e mobile" on the streets before the premiere.

But by the time the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center opened in 1966, people whistled tunes from musical comedies, and girls fainted over the Beatles. …

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