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The Fat Lady Sings in Dolby

Hoping to build opera's audience, the Met plans to beam performances to movie theaters.

September 07, 2006|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Psst. Want some Raisinettes with that Rossini?

In a move to introduce a wider audience to the art, New York's Metropolitan Opera says it will broadcast six of this season's Saturday matinee performances live to hundreds of movie theaters in the United States, Canada and Europe.

The performances, beamed via satellite and projected on high-definition systems, will begin at a not very operatic hour -- 10:30 a.m. Pacific time -- with tickets likely to cost $18 each. Maybe that seems like a lot -- especially at an hour when many movie houses drop prices to $6 -- but then again, seats at Lincoln Center cost up to $320. And at a theater near you, black tie is optional.

"It's an attempt to familiarize more people with opera," Met spokesman Peter Clark said, "and every opera company in the country will benefit from that."

In addition to the live theatrical presentations that may bring popcorn and Puccini together at last, the Met expects theaters to screen "encore" presentations and has arranged for live streaming of performances on the Internet via RealNetworks, as well as taped television broadcasts on PBS stations.

Meanwhile, the company's live Saturday afternoon radio presentations, which began 75 years ago and reach an estimated 11 million listeners, will continue.

"I have no idea" how many people will turn out for opera on a Saturday morning, said Greg Laemmle, president of Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles, which is not part of the deal. But now that more theaters are looking to make use of digital projection, "you're going to see things like this. Some are going to succeed and some are going to fail. But I applaud them for thinking it up."

However, Laemmle had two warnings: "It's definitely not an audience that's going to be heavy on the concessions" -- any slurping or crinkling and you're likely to face irate seatmates.

Second, he said, "does Los Angeles need something like that, when you can go see an opera here at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion?"

Maybe it does. Over at the Los Angeles Opera, which three years ago started making DVDs of its performances, Chief Operating Officer Edgar Baitzel hailed the broadcast idea as a breakthrough in courting new audiences.

Too often, he said, "people who are interested in making their approach to the opera can't afford it. This is a first step."

The Met's move was announced by Peter Gelb, who took over as general manager last month after a controversial but commercially successfully tenure as president of Sony Classical.

Among his other early marketing gambits: giving away every seat in the house for the final dress rehearsal of Anthony Minghella's "Madama Butterfly" later this month.

Met officials declined to estimate the cost of the broadcast initiative, but said it was made possible by three new labor contracts that give union members a share of revenue from new ventures. The Met hopes to draw 25,000 to 75,000 movie house customers in the program's first year, a spokesman said.

The first of the productions to be broadcast will be an English-language adaptation of Julie Taymor's production of Mozart's "Magic Flute," conducted by James Levine, on Dec. 30.

Later productions will be "I Puritani" on Jan. 6; the world premiere of Tan Dun's "The First Emperor," with Placido Domingo in the title role, on Jan. 13; "Eugene Onegin" on Feb. 24; "The Barber of Seville" on March 24; and "Il Trittico" on April 28.

The Met's American partner in the project is National Cinemedia, a joint venture of AMC Entertainment, Cinemark USA and Regal Entertainment Group, three of the world's largest cinema exhibitors.

Using a digital network based in Denver, National Cinemedia sends theaters non-feature-film content, including advertisements, sports events and concert presentations.

Until now, it hasn't handled opera. A National Cinemedia spokeswoman said the opera broadcasts would go to 25 or more markets, including Los Angeles, and that "it could be multiple theaters if it's a big market. But none of that's finalized yet."

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christopher.reynolds@latimes.com

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