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.
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.
The sotto voce mumblings up and down the row concur that, in fact, besides price, this is “way better” than box or even front-row seats at the Met. That’s because 10 video cameras are beaming high-definition, live satellite images to the Burbank multiplex direct from the matinee performance at America’s top opera house.
From this vantage point, you can see the twitching nose hairs of Gerald Finley, world-class Canadian baritone, as he hits his heart-rending top notes. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Mr. Finley's nationality.] You don’t need opera glasses to magnify the undulating tonsils of mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as she belts out immortal quotations of Baudelaire – courtesy of the libretto penned by Peter Sellars.
The look and feel of live singing at such ultraclose range – projected in diamond-sharp detail large enough for King Kong – is viscerally overpowering, and possibly, to listen to some purists, damaging to real opera in the long run: They fret that the jumbo-sized Dolby version might supplant the old human-scale opera with real voices.
Hmmmm. In the short run, at least, this particular brush with opera is a lot less damaging to my pocketbook than the real thing – and 3,000 miles closer. And while the 21st-century music to “Doctor Atomic,” by contemporary composer John Adams, isn’t exactly toe-tappin’, it does expand my musical palette.
Not to mention waistline.
With an intermission and running length of three hours, 25 minutes, there’s ample time to run wild in the gustatory realm: pizza, hot dogs, Häagen Dazs. (The Met offers salmon and cream cheese, chicken breast and croissant, but you can’t take any of it back to your seat.)
I didn’t tell any of the snob wannabees here, but sacrificing the cash means sacrificing cachet as well. Adios to the aroma of musty mink and Chanel No. 5. Hola to fresh-buttered popcorn and sockless feet.
I grew up reading the comic strip, “Bringing Up Father,” in which Maggie was always dragging her über-reluctant husband, Jiggs, to the opera on football Sundays. In the last frame, Jiggs was always sawing ZZZZZs while a buxom blonde in Viking horns and breastplate bellowed on some stage a football field away.
Jiggs would really hate this venue. With high-backed plush chairs, tiered stadium seating, and exquisite surround sound, there’s no escape, even if you want to. (Which I don’t.)
I’d seen two operas in the two weeks leading up to this – Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” from the mezzanine at Los Angeles Opera’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love” from box seats at the San Francisco Opera House. Neither could compete – for the virtue or vice of cutting-edge technology, take your pick – in sensory clarity.
The sound here is first-rate and doesn’t appear overly miked. Camera work is perhaps a bit too tight – especially for the woman to my left who keeps wishing the lens would “pull back.”
Either way, the viewer has to take what’s given by the simulcasters and, during close-ups at least, is deprived of visual options. The super-titles are right on the screen about one-third of the way up – instead of well above the stage as in opera theaters in L.A. and San Francisco. “Doctor Atomic,” about the scientists who developed the first atom bomb, is sung in English, but I still appreciate having the words on the screen.
The opera pulsates with onstage activity. With a moving wall of human-size cubicles – alternately occupied by scientists, secretaries, or head-dressed native Americans – there’s a lot to keep track of. There is also a moving watchtower, a dangling Buick-sized A-bomb, and a backdrop of military techno-junk. Not to mention a cast of several dozen performers who scurry to and fro.
The high definition cameras let you see the beads of perspiration develop on foreheads as easily as you can read the colored letters on a boy’s pajamas. One wonders how this big-screen exposure to minute detail will play out in other operas.
In the L.A. Opera performance of “Carmen,” for instance, a small log fire glowed like the real thing from a distance. But a quick glance in opera glasses exposed the bulb-lit, plastic flames. What will these cameras mean for other onstage artifice?
Intermission at the New York Met offers a window for more added-value features at the Burbank multiplex. Susan Graham, the Mary Hart-style host of “Met Live in HD,” chats on video with headliner Finley, who plays Dr. Robert J. Oppenheimer. He discusses the music and performance.
Next up is John Adams himself, who tells of his motivations for the opera as well as its history. And don’t head out for popcorn just yet. Two historians talk about the real-life backstory of the A-bomb project at Los Alamos, N.M., recounting details of the inner tensions and outside weather during that fateful moment.
On this Saturday, the theater is only about two-thirds full. But several people tell me empty seats are usually a rarity in these monthly broadcasts. I personally will be going back to every big screen opera I can squeeze in between lawn mowings. I figure that, after attending six months worth of performances, I’ll have experienced a little vicarious Met culture – at a savings of $768 over the New York ticket prices.
That buys a lot of Raisinets and bonbons. With cash left over for some tinted Foster Grants.