Opera at the movies

Anthony Dean Griffey, dressed in the drab colors of English fisherman Peter Grimes, stood on- stage
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Anthony Dean Griffey, dressed in the drab colors of English fisherman Peter Grimes, stood on- stage at the Metropolitan Opera House and sang the sad song of his life.

Opera lovers at the Met, inside the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, heard every note from the husky tenor. Other singers surround the hapless Grimes and accuse him in soprano, bass and contralto tones of voice.

Nancy Looby had one of the best seats in the house. The patron of the arts was sitting 150 miles north of Manhattan, in a Regal movie theater inside Guilderland’s Crossgates Mall. Looby and her friend Shirley Morgan of Kinderhook were watching a live broadcast of Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” inside the 378-seat theater, on a wide screen, in high-definition, with loud, lush sound.

Better than being there

“The Metropolitan is a great experience, but this is even better,” said Looby, 73, who lives in Albany. “It’s almost like you’re third-row center or something even better than that. You can actually see them. If they cry, you can actually see the teardrops.”

Technology has given cinema and opera partners the chance to deliver quality renditions of classic and new productions to movie theaters. Opera is meeting hundreds of old friends and making hundreds of new ones through cinema broadcasts.

At Crossgates, all the Metropolitan shows are live via satellite. Proctors in Schenectady also is offering opera: the La Scala Opera Series at the GE Theatre began in January with recorded shows of operas staged in Milan, Florence and Venice.

At Proctors, tickets for all performances are $20, with a $2 discount applied by presenting a ticket stub from any opera presented at Proctors this season or a receipt from a La Scala performance. The series will run through mid-June, with the next show, “Maria Stuarda,” from La Scala in Milan, scheduled for Tuesday at 2 p.m.

The Metropolitan series started in 2006, and this year includes eight performances. In addition to “Peter Grimes,” “Macbeth” and “Tristan und Isolde” have been among the shows on the movie screen. “La Boheme” and “La Fille du Regiment” will play at Crossgates on April 5 and 26, respectively.

“The idea was conceived by the Met as an important initiative to build a wider audience for opera, and to reconnect with opera lovers outside of New York,” said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager.

“Opera fans have as much passion for their favorite artists as sports fans have for their favorite teams, and sports franchises have been very successful at using different media platforms to increase audience attendance at live events in their stadiums.”

Global audience

More than 600 venues in North America, Australia, Europe and Japan are participating in the series, according to the Met. The first broadcast production, December’s “Romeo et Juliette,” drew a worldwide audience of 97,000 — 77,000 of those people saw the opera on 477 screens in the United States and Canada. Another 20,000 patrons saw the show on 100 screens overseas.

The U.S. and Canada shows are distributed by Colorado-based National CineMedia’s Fathom entertainment division. Dan Diamond, vice president of Fathom, attributes the operas’ popularity to an old-fashioned sense of gathering.

“There’s still a strong desire among the fans we have talked to and seen come out over and over again to movie theaters for programs to gather as communities and have a unique, one-of-a-kind experience in the movie theaters,” he said. “It’s a very immersing experience. It’s one that’s very engaging, and it’s really what the movies have done for the last century — bring people together.”

The new technology has kept them coming back. Each show costs the Met $1 million to produce, using 10 to 15 cameras around the theater. Directors from both television and motion pictures call the shots.

“Back in the ’70s and ’80s, there were certain movie theaters that would carry closed-circuit boxing,” Diamond said. “But in many of those cases, you would have to pull up a satellite truck next to the theater and run cable in and it was a very poor, standard definition picture that in its time was the best picture available. To blow that up on a 40-foot screen, it really didn’t look very good, and the presentation is critical to us.”

Crossgates opera fans are glad they have the chance to “visit” the Met without making the 21⁄2-hour drive to New York City. They say the movie house shows, which cost $22 for adults, $20 for senior citizens and $15 for children, provide extras such as backstage interviews with opera stars during intermissions.

The low ticket cost — compared to the Met’s ticket range of $27 for top of the house to $375 for a seat in a premium center box — is one reason people enjoy the opera-cinema hybrids. Convenience is another. Less hustle and bustle is a third.

“I don’t need to rub shoulders with a thousand other people, all of them with bad colds,” said Ray Blanchard, 80, of Albany.

Like other patrons of the arts at Crossgates, Blanchard and his wife, Ursula Poland, also attend live opera performances in the Capital Region. He said fans see much more of arias and duets at the movies.

“There’s the camera position in the orchestra pit, and being able to watch the conductor,” Blanchard said. “Seeing the interviews with the performers, the behind-stage moving of the various scenery — it’s so much more fulfilling than just being in the audience.”

For “Peter Grimes,” just about all the seats in the raised “stadium” section tier were taken. As people entered the theater, they heard orchestra members tuning up. At five minutes to curtain, minute-by-minute reminders told fans the show was about to begin.

At 1:30 p.m., house lights were down and the show was introduced. Conductor Donald Runnicles walked through narrow backstage corridors and entered the orchestra pit, to great applause. In seconds, the actors were in their places, and Grimes heard the case against him.

“Why should you help this kind of fellow, callous, brutal and coarse?” sang the deep-voiced lawyer, Swallow, to widow schoolmistress Ellen Orford.

Seconds later, Swallow had more sharp words, this time for the outcast fisherman: “Have you something else to say? No? Well I have!”

Each verse appeared in English subtitles at the bottom of the screen. This version of “Peter Grimes” at the Met was performed in English; words at the bottom are appreciated by some opera patrons when the performance is in another language.

Better view

Josef Schmee, 63, of Schenectady, was glad to be sitting just 40 feet or so from the screen. During visits to opera houses, he has watched much farther away from the stage.

“In a theater [for live opera], wherever you sit, if you sit up, you see the toothpicks moving,” he said of performers who appear very small from far-off vantage points. “I once saw Pavarotti, he looked like the pin of a needle, at the Met.”

At Crossgates, only a handful of people sat in the four rows at floor level, just in front of the screen. Some prefer the proximity.

“You can just lay back here and look at it like you’re looking up at a TV in bed,” said Gloria Mazure, 58, of Delmar, popcorn bag in hand. “It’s very comfy.”

Many people arrive early to claim favorite seats. Richard and Ellee Lahey, sixtysomething grandparents from Clifton Park, were in oversized blue cushions in the first row of the stadium section 45 minutes before show time.

Reaching young people

“This is a great way to promote opera and reach a lot of younger people,” Richard Lahey said. “If you look around, you’ll see there’s a lot of white hair around here. What you need is younger people, too. This gives them an opportunity to try it out at a reasonable price.”

Opera houses may not be worried about movie theater shows stealing away patrons.

“I think most of us in the industry feel like the opposite is more likely,” said Curtis Tucker, general director of the Lake George Opera at Saratoga, “that people will come see it on screen, become intrigued enough by it and opera will be more a part of their lives. And they’ll actually be more inclined to want to come see it live.

“The last broadcast, Renee Fleming, the leading soprano in the world, during one of her interviews at intermission, said to the audience, ‘If you like this, go support your local opera companies and see live performances.’ I think the industry is trying to deal with this in a way so it’s not so much about competition as it is about bringing more people into the industry, which is good for everyone.”

Shirley Morgan was happy to support “Peter Grimes” at Crossgates Mall.

“We’re at the opera,” she said. “We’re not at the movies.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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