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Big Screen Dreams: A New Stage for Opera
Rebecca Winzenreid
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Opera America Magazine6/1/2008

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Will anyone really pay $20 to see an opera in a movie theater?

The question so many people were asking a little more than a year ago seems almost quaint now as operacasts to movie theaters have skyrocketed in number. San Francisco Opera introduced its digital opera programs to movie theaters nationwide in March; La Scala and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden began offering transmissions to U.S. locations this spring; and the Metropolitan Opera finished off a second season of Live in HD transmissions by expanding its global reach to New Zealand.

The Met continues to add to its list of electronic media projects with the expected launch this fall of an online service, via its own Web site, that will offer the company's audio and video content, by subscription or on-demand. (The Met's multi-pronged initiatives also include a weekly live stream from its Web site, a Sirius satellite radio channel and on-demand streaming via Rhapsody.) But the Live in HD transmissions that launched in December 2006 remain the crown jewels of the Met's new-media efforts. Simulcasts have been attended by a million people in 17 countries, with more locations expected next season. And the high-definition transmissions have acquired something of an event status among opera fans, including those who attend performances at both the Metropolitan Opera House and in movie theaters in order to compare and contrast the viewing experiences.

Julie Borchard-Young, director of worldwide HD distribution, notes that the digital transmissions were always viewed as a 21st-century extension of the Met's traditional radio broadcasts. "There was an insurance card there," she says. "Millions of people every Saturday have already devoted their time to listen to the Met on the radio. It was a natural step to take with that audience of radio faithful, to say, come to your local movie theater on occasion and not only enjoy the music but see what's going on, participate as an extended member of the Met Opera family."

Field research has taken her to theaters across the country, often incognito, to scout audience reactions. She's discovered a level of communal experience that seems to have surpassed even her own expectations. "There is this energy and connectedness in the movie theaters. I don't often feel that when I go to a typical movie, but this crowd wants to talk about their experience, they want to share insights they have picked up, during intermission. People are congregating by the popcorn stand talking about vocal achievements or costumes." Visual cues to the full Met experience add to the familial aspect; the screen is focused on the house prior to curtain, showing audience members meeting and greeting; cameras follow the conductor into the orchestra pit; and singers are interviewed just moments after they've completed a big scene. Simulcasts also include a direct appeal by hosts, the likes of Susan Graham, Natalie Dessay and Renée Fleming, to experience an opera live in the viewers' own area.

Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb has heard lots of comments about how the Met's initiatives affect the field. He says the majority of opera companies see a win-win situation. "In general it's getting opera more in the news, which is critical for local as well as national companies — to have awareness at a high level. And I think the more entrepreneurial opera companies have been taking advantage of these transmissions to create their own kind of promotional events." He cites as a good example of synergy The Santa Fe Opera's efforts to equip that city's historic Lensic Performing Arts Center with the high-definition projection system needed for Live in HD transmissions. "It's a great opportunity for opera lovers to get their fix from the Met during the off-season of The Santa Fe Opera."

The lack of digitally-equipped movie theaters in urban areas is an odd kink in digital distribution plans, as the San Francisco Opera (SFO) found out in the run-up to its launch last winter. Because digital projection systems tend to be found in newer suburban theater chains, the list of more than 120 theaters offering the performances includes just one location in San Francisco proper, albeit a glorious one — the 1920s-era Castro Theater.

San Francisco Opera cinemacasts are digitally captured from live performances, using up to 10 cameras for varying angles and closeups, which are edited in-house. Digital feeds of the finished programs are then transmitted to movie theaters that have the discretion to schedule screenings. Most theaters in the Bigger Picture distribution network, with which SFO has partnered, offered multiple showings over a three- or four-day run for the first season's offerings: La rondine, Samson and Delilah, Don Giovanni and Madama Butterfly.

While the company is cognizant of the event status of a live simulcast, General Director David Gockley says the option of longer runs acquaints theater owners with the concept of presenting an ongoing SFO series. Additionally, he says, "Theater owners in different locations perhaps know that they can attract more of an opera audience at certain times or on certain days."

Audience comments following the first cinemacast, of La rondine, on March 8 echoed that sentiment, according to Director of Electronic Media Jessica Koplos. "We've gotten numerous e-mails from people who said, 'I went not really knowing what to expect and I went back for every showing.' They literally went four days in a row." (Attendance figures were still being gathered as of early April.)

Koplos took charge of the newly-minted electronic media position last October. With a background in film and television production, she carries the title of producer for the cinemacasts. However, Koplos describes her role as being more about communications, involving production matters, rehearsal schedules, meetings with marketing, communications and public relations personnel, and discussions with distributions partners. "I just have to be aware of what's happening when, and make sure everyone is comfortable with what's happening on the fifth floor to capture it."

The fifth floor of San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House houses the company's new Koret-Taube Media Suite. The high-definition digital video and audio production facility (named for lead funders, the Koret Foundation, with support from Tad and Diane Taube) is the first permanent installation of its kind in a U.S. opera house. It's equipped with controls for robotic cameras situated in the theater, plus post-production equipment to edit, color correct and adjust audio. The $3.5 million media suite was installed in the spring of 2007 and was first used to support the Opera Vision system that Gockley had imported from his tenure at the Houston Grand Opera. Opera Vision projects video onto screens in the balcony to give standing room patrons closeups of the action.

Once the media suite was up and running and the company saw the quality of video it was capturing, the next logical step, according to Koplos, was to ask, "Where else can we go with this?" She views the cinemacasts as a foundation on which the company can build its new-media framework, producing content for DVDs, video on-demand and other technologies on the horizon, whether they involve delivery to movie theaters, home entertainment systems or even cell phones. "Any performing arts organization is, day after day, offering content. It just happens to be content that's in the moment. Being able to capture that content, retool it and re-expose it is interesting ground," she says.

SFO has already begun building on its in-house capabilities to produce supplementary content for the cinemacasts. Intermissions have included interviews with the director, singers and, in the case of Samson and Delilahmen who have affairs read why do men have affairs
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