Saturday, March 21, 2009

Live HD opera comes to the big screen

I've never seen a live opera. Never really interested me. Besides, to actually see one, I have to travel to the spiffy new opera house in Denver, pay a fortune for tickets, get dressed up, and probably pay for a fancy dinner. If it was a priority, I'd do it.

Today, I traveled to Cinemark in Fort Collins to see a simulcast of the Metropolitan Opera's "La Sonnambula." My friend Bob lives in Fort Collins and is a long-time opera fan. He spends part of each summer at the Santa Fe Opera. He has season tickets to Colorado Opera. He goes to the Met's simulcasts. He's an opera "Deadhead," travelling across the West, following Verdi and Bellini and even Wagner. I admire that sort of dedication.

I met Bob and his neighbor Art at the Cinemark. Art used to sing opera as a hobby when he was an engineering professor at Ohio State (a.k.a. The Ohio State). Art saw opera at La Scala in Milan in 1973. La Scala is to opera what City Lights Books in North Beach is to beat poets. Or Ryman Auditorium is to C/W musicians. You get the picture. Bob, of course, has seen dozens of operas and studies up on it in his semi-retirement. I'm a novice. Still educating myself in the fine arts -- a lifelong pursuit.

I paid $20 and joined 200-some people to see the opera on-screen. As we have always suspected, technology is a wonderful things for the arts. Sure, we've seen dire warnings about our teens' brains turning to jelly from playing too many rounds of "Halo" or "Resident Evil." But tech geeks also invented the HD camera and iPods and LCD projectors to enhance the artistic experience.

As I watched a 300-year-old opera live in high-def, I thought to myself: "Technology could help opera make a comeback." Yes, most of the people in the crowd were older than my 58 years. And yes, the graying of the performing arts audience is a major concern of arts groups all over the world. Whenever I go to a local symphony performance, the sound of old people snoring competes with strains of Beethoven and Mozart.

But things may be looking up. Did you know that opera has its own version of "American Idol?" It's true. At today's simulcast, we saw a preview of "The Audition," a documentary based on a 2007 nationwide search for the next big opera voice. The singers were almost all in their 20s, with one man coming in at the ripe old age of 30. They all have wonderful voices. The search has conducted regional auditions and the winners all go to the U.S. competition. That winner gets to sing at the Met.

I haven't spoken much about the opera itself. Bellini set his original in a small 17th-century town in the Swiss Alps. The new version takes place in a NYC rehearsal space, with the players dressed in contemporary clothes rehearsing for a performance of "La Sonnambula" set in a Swiss village. Kooky.

But what impressed me most is how the Metropolitan Opera, one of the oldest and stodgiest institutions in one of the oldest and stodgiest areas in the performing arts, is modernizing through technology and by borrowing ideas from reality shows such as "American Idol." Purists will be shocked. Bob tells me that the Mary Zimmerman, director of this new version of "La Sonnambula," was booed when introduced at opening night The Met. However, the place was filled to capacity for today's performance. And much applause was flung at the leading tenor and soprano. Even Bob, an old-line opera lover, loved the changes. And if we learned anything in our most recent past, change is good.

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