The strangest thing you notice, as Mozart's Queen of the Night warbles her psychotic way through her famously unhinged aria, is the smell of popcorn -- artificial buttery goodness as olfactory counterpoint to one of the greatest of operas. The scene? Not an opera house but a movie theater in Ballston, one evening last month when the Metropolitan Opera streamed an encore presentation of its live high-definition broadcast of Mozart's "Magic Flute."
The Metropolitan Opera's live telecasts to movie theaters around the country have proved so popular that three of them have already been repeated. The six-opera series began in December and continues this afternoon with Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," which will be seen in 113 theaters in this country and dozens of others in Canada, the United Kingdom and Scandinavia. The Met expects upward of 50,000 opera lovers will pay to see the show, following along note for note, scene by scene, as an all-star cast (anchored by superstars Renee Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky) performs at the Met's home in New York's Lincoln Center.
This is definitely one of the more fascinating cultural hybrids to appear recently. Live opera in venues that are also showing "Norbit" and "Ghost Rider" is a perversely brilliant idea, bringing very expensive art to a wide audience (much wider, perhaps, than anyone expected) in a way that retains some of the buzz of going out for a show with a lot of the comfort of sitting in your living room.
It's not just popcorn and Jujubes but comfortable seats and a fun, festive atmosphere, which is more forgiving of noisy children and bathroom breaks than the regular opera setting. As movie theaters confront new challenges from home entertainment, downloadable movies and the red menace of Netflix, and as opera companies face up to the perennial challenge of indoctrinating new audiences and keeping old ones in the fold, the Met's opera-on-the-big-screen series suggests new directions for entertainment that crosses the boundary between live and canned, high and low, real and virtual.
It's also one of the better ideas to come from the Met's dynamic new general manager, Peter Gelb, who has been recasting the institution as a vibrant cultural player rather than a museum accessible only to people with C-notes to burn (premium opera house tickets for this afternoon's sold-out performance cost just shy of $300 each).
For almost a hundred years, ending in 1986, the Metropolitan Opera toured the country, visiting cities that couldn't afford to produce and cast opera at the world-class level the Met generally aimed for. Although the tours eventually became too costly, they helped ensure the Met's position as the dominant opera company in the country. In 1931, the Met also began broadcasting its Saturday matinee performance on the radio, creating a beloved tradition that continues to this day.
The new high-def movie theater series is an extension of both traditions, a cyber-tour of Metropolitan Opera productions that will certainly reach a wider and more diverse audience than those that lined up for the bus and truck tours of yesteryear.
The good news about the new series is everything it doesn't do. Based on the Mozart production seen at the Regal Ballston Common Stadium in January, movie houses are not overly amplifying the sound, at least not to the levels most film audiences would expect. The Met reports that some theaters "seemed confused by our ambient sound," meaning they weren't used to the murmuring of the crowd and the tuning sounds from the orchestra pit. But part of the pleasure of these broadcasts is that some sense of the audience and the imperfections of live performance come through. And while lighting levels have been tweaked for video, they haven't been distorted. Indeed, the camera may reveal far more than the singers and the designers might wish -- capturing the staginess of facial makeup and the flimsiness of some sets and props.
Fortunately, today's production of "Eugene Onegin" (Tchaikovsky's most human and emotionally powerful opera) is one of the best, and visually cleanest, in the Met's repertoire. Although it is now 10 years old, Robert Carson's stark and chilly take on the drama of young love spurned is as fresh as anything the Met has done in years. Set against a plain backdrop and autumnally gray lighting, the production focuses on gesture and interaction, rather than costumes or sets. Carson links the second and third acts with a brilliant vision of the arrogant Onegin, discarding friends as easily as he discards his fashionable clothes. It's the kind of directorial intervention that drives purists mad; but it works, and the emotional condensation it offers is stunning.
In several ways, there's nothing new about watching opera on the big screen. Movies of operas have been made over the years, and some of them have had modest box office success. Back when PBS still cared about high culture, the Met was regularly seen on television. And the recording industry, which is generally loath to invest in new studio recordings of operas, has turned in a big way to DVD releases of live opera performances.
The difference with the Met series, however, all comes down to people. The home entertainment industry is a great way to secretly nourish our society's niche appetites -- and so opera lovers buy or rent DVDs and watch them, quietly, at home, without ever registering their presence on the larger cultural radar. The Met's opera series, however, requires people to vote with their presence, and it brings them together with like-minded people. And so the scattered but substantial audience for a very old and elite art form is suddenly made manifest, to itself and to the rest of the world, by gathering in theaters designed for mass entertainment.