LISTEN LIVE

Simulcasts Bringing Met Opera To Fans Again

Oct 9, 2015

I'm in the third row, watching the Metropolitan Opera perform Giuseppe Verdi's  Il Trovatore. It's a pretty good view. I could see the anguish in a character's face as she sings an aria about an angry mob burning a woman alive. That event ignites the classic opera's flames of revenge -- flames that can only be doused with blood. 

But I wasn't watching the performance at New York's Lincoln Center. I was a little over 1,000 miles away, in an auditorium at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. 

There were about 130 people in the audience, here to watch the premiere of the 10th season of simulcast broadcasts of the Met, considered to be one of the best opera companies in the world. Many entered talking about the previous operas they've seen. It was hard to find someone who hasn't seen a live and in-person performance from the Met, and it was even harder to find someone who hasn't yet seen a simulcast. 

Audience members sit, waiting for the Met's simulcast to begin.
Credit Quincy J. Walters / WUSF News

There was one.  

David Swindall of Pinellas Park was in the auditorium experiencing the Met for the very first time. 

"I am so thrilled. It is so exciting to be able to see their faces so close, to hear the music, to see the expressions and the translation," he said. "And the music, of course, just vibrates through you."

He's seen performances by the St. Petersburg Opera. He compares the experience of watching live opera and a simulcast performance to watching sports at a stadium versus on a screen.

With an opera simulcast, he said, it's live but not alive

"It comes through a sound system," he said. "There's just something powerful about seeing it and hearing it as it's happening in the auditorium."

In its first years, the Met's simulcasts were financially self-sufficient. Now, entering its 10th season, it adds up to $18 million to the company's bottom line. Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, said that the simulcasts aren't intended to replace the experience of actually going to an opera; they're meant to enhance people's love for opera. 

"It's a way for opera lovers to expand their lifespan as opera-goers--people who are no longer physically able to get to the Met--that they have the comfort and convenience of being able to see performances in a local movie theater," he said. 

Gelb is referring to people like Joseph Baker, who sat behind me in the audience during the Il Trovatore performance. Baker said he's been to three Met productions in New York-- The Girl from the Golden WestAndre Chenier, and Otello--and he's seen more than a dozen simulcast productions. He agrees with Gelb: there's nothing quite like being there. 

Baker and I speak during intermission, when theater audiences are given a behind the scenes look at the opera and highlights from past performances. 

"I don't think there's any substitute for a live performance, there's really a lot of excitement in being there," he said, as a montage of soprano Anna Netrebko singing plays on the screen. "But in the theater, here, you do have the advantage of close-ups, and seeing the singers emote and act."

There are about 2,000 theaters around the world that show the simulcasts. The tickets cost about $25 each. Gelb said that getting the performances to thousands of screens is "a massive undertaking." It involves multiple subtitling for eight different languages, multiple satellites, and lots of fiberoptic cables. 

The audience in St. Petersburg--or in any theater--is probably unaware of that difficulty--as Il Trovatore comes to its conclusion, with one character making a miscalculated sacrifice and another realizing that revenge is sometimes a cold dish that you serve to yourself. 

See a list of theaters showing the Met Opera simulcasts here