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Singing to the cheap(er) seats

The Met's experiment of merging film with live performance has created a new art form.

February 04, 2007|Douglas McLennan | Special to The Times

WHEN supertitles first came into wide use in American opera houses in the 1980s, their effect was immediate and dramatic. For the first time, audiences laughed in the right places; in the dark, you could feel a heightened awareness of what was actually going on onstage. Supertitles gave nonexperts in opera a new relationship with the art form.

Today, the relationship between audiences and live music, live theater and live dance (and even print media) is strained. Many of us are happier curling up in front of the plasma, surfing the Internet or shutting out the world with our MP3 players than with schlepping out to the theater. Convenience is only part of the explanation.

Movies and TV have been around for a long time now. But in the last dozen years or so, the visual language of the screen has moved dramatically away from its live performance origins. The ability of the microphone, camera and computer to refocus storytelling from multiple perspectives, harnessed to computers that can create new realities, has produced new and sophisticated nonlinear visual and aural languages.

We are children of the video age. However many hours you may have spent in theaters or concert halls, the likelihood is you've spent vastly more time in front of a video screen or listening to recordings. For most of us, our primary relationships with performing artists are no longer through live performances but with their electronic offspring.

The ubiquity of electronic media and, in the last few years, increasingly the ability to access it whenever and however you want has created a vast audience of highly media-literate consumers. The language they are most familiar with is not live performance but that of the screen. For many, trekking to a theater and staring at a fixed point in front of them is a compromise (and a much more expensive one at that) compared with the experience they are used to most.

So where does that leave the live performing arts? There isn't an orchestra, opera, dance or theater company in America that isn't trying to figure out how to rekindle a relationship with this audience. Live performance can be a singular experience, but it is increasingly a foreign language for members of the Video Nation.

Which brings us to the Metropolitan Opera's experiment in simulcasting six operas this season to movie theaters around the world. Filmed operas have been around for quite a while, but they were never like this. The Met has reinvented the form. Or rather, it has created a new art form, judging by the Jan. 13 moviecast of Tan Dun's new opera "The First Emperor." This venture may be the most significant development in opera since the supertitle. The moviecasts have been a hit. "The Magic Flute," the first of six operas produced for the big screen, was seen in 100 venues worldwide and drew an audience of 30,000, selling 90% of its tickets and selling out at many theaters. The Met ( has been signing up more venues for the next opera, Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," starring Renee Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (10:30 a.m. Feb. 24). Demand has been so high that encore screenings are planned for "I Puritani (7 p.m. Feb. 13) and "First Emperor" (7 p.m. March 7 and 1:30 p.m. March 11). Meanwhile, Cineplex, Canada's largest movie-house chain, is considering live performances from Broadway.

Cuts, angles and close-ups

WHAT the Met is doing is not simply filming a stage production and hoping to capture some of the experience for a movie screen. "The First Emperor," which had its world premiere at the Met Dec. 21, was stage-directed by Zhang Yimou, a Chinese film director who understands the language of the screen. The live performance in New York was shot with a dozen cameras and switched like the broadcast of a football game, complete with quick cuts, multiple angles and close-ups.

Being able to see the expressions on singers' faces was only part of the upgrade. The scale of the sets, the costumes and the singers were transformed by the screen -- from startling close-ups (close enough to see Placido Domingo's pores) to a panorama view of the screen-filling wall set that dominated the first act. These were perspectives not available to those sitting back in the Met mother ship.

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