Centuries ago, when opera was developed, there were frequently debates about which element was more important, the music or the text. Today, the most crucial question is: Do you want butter with your popcorn?
Thanks to the Metropolitan Opera, which introduced the concept of digitally transmitted performances to movie theaters a couple years ago, people all over the country and abroad are heading to the local cineplex to get their fix of Verdi, Puccini and Wagner. Locally, big movie theaters in Abingdon and Columbia signed on quickly to the Met's live simulcasts with subtitles.
"I originally tried to get the Met series," says Buzz Cusak, who runs the Charles Theatre in Baltimore. "But they had a 40-mile, noncompete clause." (The Lyric Opera House, which recently installed the equipment to offer the Met's satellite transmissions, is not a regular movie theater.)
"Then I started getting e-mails from other digital companies that had relationships with other opera companies," Cusak says. One of those new competitors to the Met's product, Emerging Pictures, got his attention. "It was appealing because they had La Scala. I thought people would like it."
Milan's La Scala has had its share of artistic ups-and-downs, but is still considered the leading Italian opera house. It's audiences, too, are famous, especially for vociferously making their displeasure known during and after performances.
In addition to La Scala, Emerging Pictures offers productions from Venice and other Italian cities, as well as other European countries.
There's one primary difference between these presentations and those from the Met - the New York performances are beamed live to theaters; until this month, the ones from Europe have been filmed live and transmitted after editing. The first simulcast was of a production of Verdi's Don Carlo on the opening night at La Scala, one of the most glittery social events of the Italian season.
"I heard tickets to La Scala that night went as high as $2,400," Cusak says. "You could see it at the Charles for $20."
Another simulcast from La Scala, of Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims, is being planned for April.
"There's nothing like a live performance," says Allan Starkey, a Baltimore opera buff who travels to Lincoln Center several times a year for in-person Met experiences. But he's also a regular at the Met's area cinema partners and now the Charles, where he particularly enjoyed last season's five-hour showing of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde from La Scala.
Cusak has seen "a definite following" for the La Scala presentations. "For Don Carlo, we had maybe 150 people, and probably half that for nonlive performances. People really like the live thing. It is more spontaneous that way. They got to hear the people at La Scala booing the tenor at the end."
Starkey gives high marks to the sound quality in the multiplexes offering the Met operas. "The sound system at the Charles is adequate, but doesn't come close to Abingdon and Columbia. The picture quality, however, is superior to what the Met is able to deliver. It's every bit as bright as a regular movie."
The expansion beyond La Scala on the Emerging Pictures lineup also holds appeal. This year, Austria's Salzburg and England's Glyndebourne festivals are in the mix; the latter's updated Hansel and Gretel will be shown Tuesday. "There is a curiosity to see what the inside of those theaters looks like and what the stagings are like," Starkey says. Ballet, including performances from Moscow's Bolshoi, is now on the schedule.
So far, the technical side of bringing performances from historic European theaters to a Baltimore movie house has been smooth. Except for the start of the Don Carlo simulcast. "We got messages that someone was trying to hack into the system," Cusak says. "They called us three or four times telling us to jig and jag. When we started, the [picture] wasn't in frame."
Although digital transmissions by phone line or satellite may be subject to tampering, nothing is likely to stop the digitalization of cinema.
"There is a general question about where movie theaters are going," Cusak says. "The future is clearly digital, a new world where anything anywhere can be transmitted everywhere."
IF YOU GO
The International Opera and Ballet Series at the Charles Theatre continues with Verdi's Otello at 6:45 p.m. Sunday and Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel at 3:45 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets are $20. The theater is at 1711 N. Charles St. Call 410-727-3456 or go to thecharles.com.