Innovations by opera are something to sing about

CRITICAL EYE

December 31, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

CLASSICAL MUSIC organizations are not typically on the cutting edge of technology -- but more and more of them, with an eye on long-term survival, have heartily embraced new opportunities.

Orchestras are figuring out how to make concerts downloadable in various formats, for example, in an effort to avoid the difficulties (and huge expenses) of making commercial recordings the old-fashioned way.

Things are especially interesting in the opera world, which seems to be embracing the techno-cyber era more than anyone.

The lead has clearly been set by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, thanks to general manager Peter Gelb, who started on the job in August. Cool things just keep happening with this company.

On the opening night of the season, Sept. 25, the highly coiffed, well-connected crowd that always turns out on such grand occasions did not have the performance of Puccini's Madama Butterfly entirely to itself. Another 3,000 or so opera fans, dressed any way they chose, crowded into the plaza at Lincoln Center and caught the whole thing on a simulcast projected on a large screen -- and for free.

Now that, in itself, is not necessarily stop-the-presses stuff. Other companies have done outdoor simulcasts over the years, including Washington National Opera, which attracted some 13,000 to a live performance from the Kennedy Center of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess on the National Mall in 2005. The company followed that up last month with a simulcast of its own Madama Butterfly (inclement weather kept attendance down).

But the Met's opera house-to-screen event this season didn't stop in the plaza outside the front door. Another simulcast of that performance was beamed to hundreds more fans a little farther down Broadway -- right in the middle of Times Square.

Talk about a marketing coup. Gelb's choice of an opening-night opera was already newsy, because that particular Butterfly got its wings from a provocative production by filmmaker Anthony Minghella, being seen in the U.S. for the first time. By sending the performance outdoors, to two locations, the evening became international news.

And that was just the beginning.

The Met, usually confined to PBS when it wants to warble on the airwaves (on those increasingly rare occasions when it can get PBS airwaves), managed to break out a little in November. It presented the Act 1 finale of The Barber of Seville, in costume and with an ensemble that included the dashing tenor star Juan Diego Florez, on the set of the Late Show with David Letterman.

OK, so it didn't really fit neatly into the TV studio (the singers stood in a straight, cramped line and sang into microphones). And Letterman didn't bother setting up the scene. But, hey, it was opera; it was on a national commercial network; and it was playing to a large viewership that is regarded, at least by itself, as hip. Again, great marketing.

Yesterday afternoon, the Met upped the ante in the bring-opera-to-the-masses business. A live performance from the company's Lincoln Center home was shown onscreen, as it will be again this Saturday, too, and four more times this season -- but not projected outside in some plaza.

Welcome to the next Gelb innovation: matinees at the movies.

For 76 years, the Met has broadcast live Saturday afternoons to radio stations around the country. Many's the opera fan who acquired a taste for the art form from those broadcasts. Now, for the first time, a sampling of this season's Met matinees is being presented live in high-definition format on big screens and with surround-sound at a multiplex near you.

Well, more or less near. The closest Baltimore-area opera fans could get to yesterday's premiere movie showing of Mozart's The Magic Flute was a theater in Alexandria, Va., which sold out weeks ago. But this Saturday's simulcast of Bellini's I Puritani, starring soprano sensation Anna Netrebko, is scheduled to be shown at the Bel Air Cinema Stadium 14 in Abingdon and the UA Snowden Square Stadium 14 in Columbia.

(As of a few days ago, tickets were available at both venues. For more information, go to fathomevents.com or metopera.org.)

The movie / opera house link is remarkable enough, something that should keep interest up among the already converted and entice those who are curious. But there's still more.

This season, the Met also started offering weekly Internet streamings of live performances. Even more opera is being sent out over Sirius Satellite Radio. Subscribers to that service can hear live Met performances four nights a week, along with priceless material from the Met's extensive archive of live performances.

Opera fans have long salivated over the Met archives, so the company will easily score points with its satellite radio deal, as well as the promise of making hundreds of performances from the vaults available soon through an on-demand audio service. It's a great example of combining product, consumer interest and technology.

Every TV or radio satellite transmission, download, podcast interview with a singer or daily production blog by a designer doesn't just make the Met become more visible. The operatic art form itself becomes more viable.

It's too soon to tell where all the novel paths will ultimately take opera companies and their fans, but it's invigorating to know that so many fresh possibilities exist -- with new ones sure to be just around the next aria.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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