In opera, as the old adage goes, it ain't over till the fat lady sings. But in a grand experiment, one Digital Age opera performance was almost over before the proverbial fat lady could be heard.
The Metropolitan Opera's first live, high-definition transmission of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" to 100 movie theaters around the world went off with a few hitches Saturday morning.
At the AMC Burbank 16, minutes into the performance -- the Three Ladies had slain the dragon and had just begun to sing "Rejoice" -- the audio dropped out as well. It remained choppy for the rest of their number. Then, when Papageno made his entrance, the picture went out as well. The audience was deflated.
The Met's new, abridged English-language version of Mozart's extravaganza, directed by Julie Taymor, was transmitted to Burbank and Irvine (glitch-free) at 10:30 a.m. (No screenings were held within the 213, 323 or 310 area codes -- a point many ticket holders grumbled about.)
Before curtain, the suburban shopping area outside the multiplex vaguely resembled the plaza in front of the Met, with opera fans holding signs reading: "Need One Ticket." According to the theater manager, all 183 seats sold out the first day the $18 tickets went on sale.
Undaunted by the sellout, one woman left her home in Malibu at 7 a.m. in hopes of scoring a seat for the Burbank showing (she got one). By 10:25 a.m., the people waiting for returns outnumbered the ticket holders for morning screenings of "We Are Marshall" and "Blood Diamond" down the hall.
Inside the theater, the audience was a mix of opera aficionados, music professionals and Taymor fans -- plus a few who had seen the trailer and were "just curious." Ted, a night concierge at the Farmer's Daughter Motel who declined to give his last name, proudly showed off his tickets to all three Met simulcasts this month (each of which is sold out at the Burbank AMC). Marilyn White and her husband drove from Palos Verdes, despite seeing the Met's full-length, German-language version of "Die Zauberflote" in New York last week. "We thought it would be fun to see it in English," she said. Vikki Hillebrand, 95, put it simply: "Opera with popcorn -- now that's a first."
The Burbank crowd was already buzzing by the time the lights went down and the Met's general director, Peter Gelb, appeared on-screen; excitement palpably rippled through the aisles when he introduced Katie Couric. The CBS news anchor read a few nice things about Mozart and then introduced James Levine. The Met's maestro raised his baton, the overture began and the live music was soon accompanied by a (prerecorded) montage of actors putting on costumes and makeup -- complete with titles in the manner of a film's opening credits.
The opera began in earnest with Tamino (sung by Matthew Polenzani) chased by one of Taymor's giant puppet-dragons. Polenzani's voice was clear, and the HD image of the flamboyant production was vivid. The idea of opera in movie theaters appeared to be a perfect fit.
Then the music died.
The video feed was soon restored, but the audio remained spotty, culminating in the surreal experience of hearing the Queen of the Night's famous high-F aria ("Oh tremble not") as a duet with digital static. This prompted laughter from the audience and more than a few walkouts -- one who advised people to "go rent the Bergman movie."
The audio problems continued throughout the 105-minute show, reaching a nadir when the sound went out completely under Rene Pape, arguably opera's preeminent bass. Pape looked like a fish gasping for air as he mouthed Sarastro's gorgeous music in silence. A theater representative quickly announced that refunds would be issued. Many audience members got up and left.
The show did go on. Roughly two-thirds of the crowd stuck it out. They were rewarded by finally hearing the fat lady -- actually, svelte soprano Erika Miklosa -- sing. The demons in the circuitry took a break during the Queen's second number. Her famous aria was entirely audible, with each coloratura curlicue heard cleanly. The audience roared -- as much in appreciation for finally being able to listen to a full number as for Miklosa's performance.
When Mozart's last notes faded and the lights went up, the woman from Malibu was still there, but Ted, the night concierge, was not. In the lobby, there was an air of disappointment. "There's no excuse for this," said Steven Rosenthall, who used to work in cable television. "There are five networks in L.A. that have hi-def. This is not new technology." Noa Winter Lazerus, a composer, admitted he was saddened but insisted: "I love the concept, and I think people will give it another chance."
At the Edwards Irvine Spectrum 21, a full house applauded before, during and after the screening. With more than 500 seats, that theater was considerably larger than Burbank's and brought people from across Orange County and as far as the Valley and Pasadena.