A popcorn and an aria, please
Q: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
A: “Practice, practice, practice.
Q: “Well, then, how do you get to the Metropolitan Opera?”
A: “Drive south on Abercorn Street from downtown Savannah about 10 miles to the movie theater behind Savannah Mall.”
That second question is no joke, as I learned last week, joining four friends for a New Year’s Day outing to the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in High Definition screening of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. For the second year, the New York institution is broadcasting a series of their operas live to movie theaters around the world. Hansel and Gretel was the second of eight performances this season, and it’s the first year that Savannah is among the broadcast locations.
Opera on New Year’s Day wasn’t on my list of 2008 resolutions until one of our group heard about the live Met screening by word of mouth, from her cousin who lives on St. Simons Island. While there’s been plenty of fanfare about the Live in HD series at the national level, so far there’s been little press locally about the broadcast.
With hundreds of communities receiving the broadcasts worldwide, the Met didn’t have the budget for paid advertising at the local level, according to Sommer Hixson, the Press Director for the Met. Instead, they are relying on grass roots marketing through opera fans worldwide who receive Metropolitan Opera email newsletters, plus coordination with local opera companies (in cities where such entities exist.)
When Timothy Hall received the Met’s e-newsletter last year about the HD broadcasts, “I was so envious,” he said. “I thought, ‘this will never come to south Georgia.’ When I saw this year’s list of theaters and saw there were ten in Georgia, including one in Savannah, I was thrilled.”
Hall, Director of Music and Organist at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church and a longtime chorale director, has attended operas at the Metropolitan nearly a dozen times. I ran into Hall at the concession stand during intermission—large popcorn for me, Raisinets for him.
“My expectations were all met,” said Hall during a post-opera phone call last week. “You forgot you were in the movie theater. I kind of felt like I was sitting in the seat at the Met.”
“For a singer, because the camera often closes in when they are singing, it’s almost like a little voice lesson, because you get to see up close the way they breathe or work on certain tones. You don’t get that at the Met unless you have opera glasses.”
Our little party was perhaps the least informed of anyone in the Savannah audience—all that most of us knew was the name of the opera, the ticket price, the time and location. My only expectation was that seeing Hansel and Gretel would be a wonder-filled experience.
That expectation was exceeded over the next two and a half hours, with Dolby digital surround sound transmitting the world’s best voices and orchestra, the lighting and camera work capturing innovative sets and staging, and costuming that transformed ordinary human beings into eight foot tall bulging chefs, a fish dressed as a butler, and a 21st century take on the classic evil witch.
The sense of wonder began as we opened the door to movie theater number four. Instead of piped in background music, we heard the warm-up tuning of strings, horns and woodwinds layering together with the low bubbling of audience voices. It was thirty minutes before curtain time, and the sounds of the opera house were streaming in from New York. Our theater was already half filled, continuing to near capacity.
When the screen went live, the first shot was a chandelier close-up that panned out into the auditorium and up to the ceiling, past four balconies of red seats filling with New York opera patrons. With ten to thirteen digital cameras covering each performance, the HD broadcast is directed similarly to a TV show, with a producer cutting between camera shots while coordinating with the manager of the stage production, according to Hickson.
The intimacy of the broadcast felt almost voyeuristic.
“I feel like we’re in Row K,” whispered one of my companions as the lights dimmed and Renee Fleming (“America’s queen of opera” according to Hall) materialized on screen from backstage in New York, to introduce Hansel and Gretel to the Live in HD audience. Fleming returned during the 30-minute intermission, conducting interviews with the lead singers (both leads are sung by women), and with the technical director, who gave a behind the scenes tour of the sumptuous-looking desserts that lured Hansel and Gretel into the witch’s kitchen.
“The house is ready. Cue the maestro,” said the Live in HD producer. As conductor Vladimir Jurowski walked onstage, many of us in the Savannah audience applauded along with those in the New York house, in anticipation of the magic ahead.
The next broadcast of Metropolitan Opera: Live in High Definition is Macbeth by Guseppe Verdi. Saturday January 12, 1:30 p.m. Regal Savannah Stadium 10 Movie Theater