This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on January 29, 2008.
The closest I came to being an opera fan was the 15 years I spent as a regular
viewer of As the World Turns, a so-called “soap opera.” The daily daytime dramas are
called soap operas, or “soaps” for short, because they are often sponsored by laundry
detergent or other household cleansers. The “opera” part comes from the interpersonal
storylines, romantic liaisons and breakups, clear cut villains, brave heroes and fair
New York’s Metropolitan Opera started broadcasting real operas in movie theaters
throughout the United States starting in their 2006/2007 season. I attended “I Puritani,”
one of the first productions, last January in Alhambra and was shocked to see the line to
enter the theater stretching around the block – at 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning.
Who were these people? It turns out they were just like me, curious to see an opera in a
movie theater, broadcast live from New York.
When my husband and I entered the theater, we heard the orchestra tuning, 3000 miles
away in the pit of the Met. We had to scramble to find a good seat because the opera
buffs had come early. After we got settled we watched the people in the audience at the
theater taking their seats on the screen. Listening to the tuning orchestra and watching
the audience members taking their seats made us feel as if we were at a live
performance. The conductor came out and the camera followed him to the pit where he
lifted his baton and the opera began.
The cameras moved around the stage and gave the theater audience a view of the
opera that those at the Met could not see. The subtitles provided the English translation
so I could follow the story, but opera dialogue moves very slowly because
everything is sung, so it forces the viewer to slow down. At first I was annoyed and
wanted the story to move faster because I am used to quickly changing scenes and
dialogue on TV and the movies. In opera, you have to stop, look and listen -- to the
singing, the scenery and the singers in their costumes. It takes a while to slow the pace,
but once you get there, it is relaxing.
At intermission the camera went backstage to the radio booth where Beverly Sills, a
former opera star, gave a backstage tour. Sills made opera accessible, like Leonard
Bernstein did for classical music. She was very funny when she described the “mad
scene” when the female lover thinks she has been deserted by the man she loves and
goes nuts. Sills recalled the mad scenes she played during her long career and gave
an inside-look-at-baseball for the movie theater audience.
Operas are long and they often have two intermissions. That is another part of
adjusting to opera that is worth the effort. There are few things we sit still for these days.
Staying put for the opera gives you a chance to be transported to another world where
emotions are strong and storylines are spare but the singing is glorious and at some
point you dissolve into it. But it takes time and patience.
Since my first experience, I have returned to the theater in Alhambra and am now
savoring my newly acquired taste in opera. We went to see “Hansel and Gretel” on New
Year’s Day. It was a very dark rendering of the Grimm fairy tale and the two singers,
Alice Coote and Christine Schafer, had me convinced they were two little kids. In this
opera there were much more elaborate costumes and sets, and the dream sequence
in the forest was magical.
Hansel and Gretel slept at the front of the stage while at least a dozen characters
walked in, with giant heads, like the bubble heads of sports figures. A table rolled in and
the characters brought in cakes, pastries and other confections – some were real and
some were props, as we found out during intermission from the Stage Manager when
we were taken back stage by Renee Fleming. The music played in the background and
we had a visual feast as the stage was transported into an elegant dining room.
Opera in movie theaters provides an opportunity for people who want to check out
opera to see and hear the best the art form has to offer. The Met is going to present its
high-definition simulcasts on 300 – 400 movie screens this season, a nearly three-fold
increase from last season. An art form that originated in 1597 has relevance today and
can be seen by anyone who buys a ticket. For more information go
to www.metropera.org/hdive or call 1-800-Met-Opera.
Kathleen Vallee Stein