Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 26, 2010

The Met Lives-from radio to movie screens to NYC

by Shera Cohen

My love of opera began in the womb. Mom listened faithfully to Saturday matinees broadcast directly from the Metropolitan Opera. Actually, she started this habit when she was a youngster and has rarely missed a literal beat in the past 70 years. Therefore, if I was home on any given Saturday, I was more or less forced to hear opera.

Roberto Alagana
in Verdi's "Don Carlo"
December 11, 2010
During my elementary school years, this music was torture to my ears. How could it compete with Elvis, Joey Dee, and the doo-wop quartets? But Mom turned up the volume for her favorite arias (the love song in Act I of "La Boheme," "Habanera" of "Carmen," and "Nessun Dorma" from "Turandot") and even Little Peggy March lost the battle of the high notes. So, I grabbed my Ginny doll, went to my room, and closed the door for some peace from this noise.

A few years passed, and I received the gift of a tiny transistor radio that only got the AM dial. [Remember when they were cool to be small, later they grew into boom boxes, and now small again?] I discovered the Top 40, the Beatles, and on occasion and even on purpose a bit of opera. I hid around the corner of the den to listen. Mom never noticed me - I think. For the most part, I continued to believe that opera was for those who understood languages other than English and/or for old people.

I'm in high school, and that seed of music appreciation that began 16 years prior, didn't quite blossom but, at the very least, germinated. At the time, if I had to list my personal Top 10, it would have included songs of Roy Orbison, Tom Jones, and anything by The Four Seasons. Among the remaining six, was "Un belle di" from "Madama Butterfly." Did I grow up? Did my undiscerning ears finally detect true beauty in music - unbelievable beauty and emotion - from opera? Perhaps a bit ashamed to admit it, the answer was "yes." Ashamed because I waited many years to appreciate the sounds that filled the house each Saturday, or ashamed because I was a teenager and was not "supposed" to like opera? I think the answer is "both."

Juan Diego Florez
"Le Comte Ory"
March 24, 2011
The 2010/11 season is the 80th anniversary of the Saturday matinee radio broadcasts, now heard on NPR stations as well as throughout the world on the International Radio Network. The series runs from December through May. This is FREE opera at its very best. I now try to run my Saturday comings and goings with an approximate three-hour time span to sit by the stereo for opera listening. Mom often said that she was "glued to the radio" for the Texaco Opera Broadcasts (now sponsored by the Toll Brothers). While I didn't exactly become glued, it was difficult to pull me away from any piece composed by Puccini, Verdi, Bizet, or Donezetti. However, listening to Wagner once was enough. Save for vacations and otherwise special occasions, I have been faithful to these live Met broadcasts for decades. Basically, there was only thing that could pry me away from the matinees on radio - the matinees at the movies.

And then came the big screen! Live in HD. The Met launched its award-winning first season of live, HD performances in 2006. For the first time, simultaneous performances of those at the Met came to a movie theatre near you - and me. Now in its fifth season, HD operas have been seen by nearly 2 million on 1000 movie screens in over 40 countries. Officials at the Met now call what was a "calculated risk" a "worldwide phenomenon."

Before the movie series began, there must have been so many practical questions. Only time would tell for the responses. Would traditional opera goers not attend live performances? Would they go to these movies instead? Would those who might have thought about going to New York, abandon that idea for a trip a few miles down the road to the cinema? Does money talk? Can one put a dollar value on music? On opera? Then there are sociological questions. Is opera for the elite? Is it accessible? Will someone under age 50 be the youngest person in the audience?

It seems that one of the Met's plans was to increase audience numbers. According to Executive Director Peter Gelb, the series has surpassed the goal. Yet, that in itself has been criticized by those who believe that the appeal of live opera has been undermined. "Nothing replaces the experience of being at the Metropolitan Opera House," he said. For me, opera is the combination of music + dance + acting. Those onstage are not "just" the world's best singers; they are among the best of today's actors.

Last season's series broadcast nine performances. I attended five. Mom attended all. On those select Saturday afternoons, I was "introduced" to those who I "knew" in passing - Rene Fleming, Placido Domingo, Susan Graham, Natalie Dessay - new faces like Marcello Giordani and Marina Poplavskaya, and heartthrobs including Simon Keenlyside and Anna Netrebko. While several of the productions were called "new," this did not affect me, as the closest that I had come to the Met was radio.

Susan Graham
"Iphigenie en Tauride"
February 26, 2011
For readers only vaguely familiar with opera, here are some helpful pointers. The plots are relatively simple for both the tragedies and comedies. The former far outnumber the latter. And, it's not a spoiler to write that leading characters often die - by sword, jumping off cliffs, live burial, hanging, and just plain illnesses. If the story gets even a bit confusing, a synopsis is read on the radio, or read your own on the movie's one pager, and the program book at the Met. Supertitles translated into English provide word for word text of the lyrics. One recommendation is to avoid reading on occasion. The music translates through notes and images far better than the written English. Notice that while most operas are expected by purists to appear exactly as the composer drew them, some are updated in costume and design. "La Traviata" and "The Magic Flute," for instance, have taken on numerous identities. Operas penned by composers Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, and Rossini are probably the best for Opera 101 classes to attend. It is not by accident that Puccini's works are among the most well-known even by people who have never heard of opera.

Of course, I had seen several PBS televised performances through the years. They were sporadic. Live in HD, however, is much different than in front of one's TV, particularly for five excellent reasons. 1) There's the thrill of almost being there in this huge, beautiful venue in New York alongside the thousands in attendance. And, surprisingly to some, many are teens and tweens. 2) The performance becomes three dimensional instead of two dimensional in the television format. 3) While there is a cost to see HD, it's not much more than that of a "regular" movie, and far less than the cost of a play or sports game. 4) Renee Fleming (MC) interviews conductors, singers, et al, before or after they set foot on stage, giving the movie audience something that the live audience does not hear. 5) As a theatre person (I've done everything but act), it is a wonderful treat to see the intricate choreography of set changes. If, for some reason, the opera is not outstanding, the accoutrements are; i.e. sets, costumes, lighting, coifs. Last season's "Aida" and "Turandot" were spectacular to see and hear.

Yet, do I know of what I write? On what was the single snowy, cold, slippery, raw day that we experienced in the unusually easy winter of 2010, I finally went to the Met. So, my answer is "yes," I can now compare the three: opera on radio, movies Live in HD, and Live at the Met in NYC. The opera - Puccini's "La Boheme." It was my third favorite, but Mom's #1 since the time she was a kid. This was her 89th birthday gift. Lincoln Center's setting was amassed with snowflake chandeliers, red and gold everywhere, and many opera lovers dressed up. However, the latter is far from a requirement, especially for the youngsters. It was wonderful seeing so many children appreciating the music of opera.

The plot of "La Boheme" is simple. Girl meets boy (girl is the aggressive one in the relationship), have one hour to fall in love, struggle though poor, have equally down-and-out friends, yet all enjoy life on the streets of Paris. Girl thinks that she is a burden to boy, leaves for another who she does not love, gets really sick, returns to boy, and dies in his arms. The gorgeous, sensual Anna Netrebko played girl, and Piotr Beczala played boy. The sets - the disheveled artists' garret, the lavish and populated promenade of Paris, a snowy landscape - are relatively dark (after all, this is one of the most tragic of tragedies set to paper) yet distinct and honest. The supporting cast goes above and beyond what one would expect from secondary roles; these singers are exemplary actors as well. Let me not forget that one voice that never stops throughout the three hours - the symphony of the Metropolitan Opera, with conductor Marco Armiliato.

I used the word "simple" to describe the story. I will stick with that, yet "La Boheme," the Metropolitan Opera, the red carpet, the giant curtain, the bravos after each aria, and the experience of sitting next to other people who I didn't know but who loved what I loved is not simple. I also sat next to Mom.

The 2010-2011 Live in HD season begins October 9th with Wagner's "Das Rheingold." The series includes 11 operas and ends on May 14th.  For information on each opera, dates, movie theatres, and the entire Live at the Met (in NYC) season check

Credit: Elena Park, Live in HD and Radio Guide, 2009-10 season