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I decide to attend the opera, with Raisinets and bonbons.

Live performances of the New York Metropolitan Opera are beamed into movie theaters across the country, offering audiences ways to experience high culture at low prices. But is it the same as live or is it just Memorex?

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / December 1, 2008

Cheap seats: Fans at a movie theater in Burbank, Calif., await the start of a New York Metropolitan Opera performance that will be broadcast on the big screen. The ‘Met Live in HD’ series is in its third year of operation.

Joshua Sudock/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Burbank, Calif.

I load up my cardboard tray with Raisinets, Milk Duds, popcorn, Coke, and bonbons – OK, that’s an exaggeration: I skip the Milk Duds. I make my way down the brightly carpeted hallways flanked by oversized photos of all the greats (Bogie and Bacall, Gable and Monroe) and push open the doors to Theater 8 at the Burbank AMC 16 multiplex.

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To my left, on a movie screen the size of Ethiopia, are four gilded tiers of fur- and jewel-bedecked patrons, milling around to the dissonant cacophony of tuning piccolos, violins, trumpets. On my right sit 300 to 400 real-life people, dressed in blue jeans, scruffy Tees, and I think I see a flip flop or two. This is California, after all.

Next – via loudspeaker – the words, “Maestro to the pit.” Video cameras show a lone man making his way through a narrow passageway. He steps into a spotlight. The audience cheers. Then, house lights down, stage lights up, music swells, scrim ascends, and ... action.

For a soccer dad more used to the smells of fresh-mown grass, plopping back in a dark movie theater at 10 a.m. on a Saturday to watch opera is as jarring as a two-fingered poke in the eye by one of the Three Stooges. But this is the new way for a member of the masses like me to see “Aida” or “La Bohème” or, on this day, “Dr. Atomic” relatively cheaply and still get my red licorice.

At least once a month, performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York are beamed into more than 450 movie theaters in 48 states. Some 1 million people have attended the “Met Live in HD” screenings since they began three years ago by a Colorado-based company, Fathom.

To devotees, the broadcasts are a way for everyone from dentists to drywallers to experience opera at the highest level. But others see them as the equivalent trying to vacation in Maui by watching a video of Don Ho. I decided to attend myself to see what all the fuss is about.

•••

By posture and hair length, the people sitting in my row look as if they would probably be more at home with surfboards and the 1940s. But they know a good deal when they see one. From behind tinted Foster Grants (hey, who would be dumb enough to wear fully darkened sunglasses in a theater?), the guy to my right cackles something about pashmina-wrapped patricians from the “other coast” who paid up to $295 for seats at the Met while we paid only $22.

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