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September 23, 2008

Metropolitan Opera at home in Baltimore (on screen)

Renee Fleming Metropolitan OperaLast night's performance at the Lyric Movie Palace, I mean Lyric Opera House, was notable on several fronts. The theater has been effectively refitted to accommodate simulcasts via satellite from the Metropolitan Opera. The Met's high-def broadcasts, introduced a couple seasons back, have been an extraordinary hit at cinemas across this country and in several others. Locally, they've been available previously at cineplexes in Abingdon and Columbia. Now, downtown Baltimore has been added to the mix, thanks to Baltimore Opera, which spearheaded the needed additions to the Lyric's technical equipment. With a nice, big screen, the place really looked like an old-fashioned movie house last night; popcorn was even for sale in the lobby. Several hundred turned out and, other than a couple of noisy talkers near me (why are they always, always near me, no matter the theater or the occasion?), everyone seemed quite taken with the whole experience. I found the picture quality of the transmisison excellent, the sound decent, if a little boxy. (The sound quality might have been a result of this particular simulcast, not the newly upgraded sound system. One problem definitely was on the Met's end; it took a while to jump-star the subtitles. Their appearance after about 20 minutes into the broadcast prompted applause from the Lyric audience.)

The Met's HD series, previously limited to Saturday matinees, was expanded this season to include opening night, a gala revolving around soprano Renee Fleming. It was the first time a soprano had been given ...  

such a distinction for the Met's season-launcher. Fleming was featured in three chunks from three separate operas, affording her an opportunity to show off not only her musical versatility, but the costumes created for her by three big-league fashion designers -- Christian Lacroix (Act 2 of La traviata), Karl Lagerfeld (Act 3 of Manon) and John Galliano (final scene of Capriccio). Those designers and those gowns got a few too many plugs during the pre-performance on-air features. For that matter, all of those features could have used a firmer directorial hand. Mezzo Susan Graham was a bubbly host, interviewing various A- and B-list celebs, but there are only so many "fabulous," "amazing" and "fantastic" adjectives that one can stand. Deborah Voigt looked, well, fabulous, amazing and fantatsic, standing in Times Square to cover the outdoor simulcast there, but her segments couldn't disguise their time-killing purpose.

Renee Fleming Metropolitan OperaBut, hey, this was Fleming's night, and she seemed determined to make the most of it. I bailed out after three hours, before Capriccio, pleading fatigue and hunger, but I'm sure she soared in that scene, too. In the Traviata excerpt, she dug deep into Violetta's character to reveal the mix of consuming joy and creeping consumption; every gesture and glance could be appreciated in the vivid, close-up filming. Her voice sounded a little husky, but had expressive power throughout. Ramon Vargas was a vocally elegant Alfredo. Thomas Hampson completed the starry casting as Germont. He pushed his baritone hard at times, but his singing was alive with communicative nuance. James Levine, looking robust after his recent cancer operation, conducted with his usual authority. Marco Armiliato took over the podium for the Manon act, which found Fleming delivering a sturdy, colorful account of the Gavotte and then, in Scene 2, really driving it home for the duet with an equally impassioned Vargas.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still prefer my opera live and in person. Still, the Met's HD revolution has undeniable appeal, and it's fun to see people get fully into the proceedings, breaking into applause when the Met's audience does. At the Lyric, even some of the things only seen by simulcast viewers generated clapping, like the appearance of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg for an intermisson chat with Graham. I thing the many backstage things that are shown, the scene-changes and the like, are especially engaging.

One goal of these simulcasts is to bring in new audiences for opera. That may still take some selling -- last night's crowd was heavy on regular, older-age patrons (a common occurence elsewhere, from what I've read) -- but the potential is certainly there.    

PHOTOS: Top, Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson in dress rehearsal of 'La traviata'; also, Renee Fleming in dress rehearsal of 'Manon' (AP/Metropolitan Opera)             

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:54 PM | | Comments (5)


I attended the broadcast in Abingdon. The 300 seat theatre held about 50 of us. In the past two seasons I have attended in Abingdon and Columbia, both with very full houses. (For one production in Columbia, they opened a second auditorium.)

What I enjoy is the ability of the camera to show the production so much better than even the best seat in the house can see. Yes the sound is amplified, but so are the Saturday radio broadcasts. The pieces that show the 'craft' of staging give a literal view behind the curtains, and not something usually visible.

I think the best aspect of the transmissions is the ability to see so many productions at about $20 each. Yes I love live opera, but you can't beat the price/quality value.

I was looking at Met tickets for some Mozart. Orchestra seats were about $275. Round trip on the train is over $100. Add parking, taxis, and a couple of meals in New York and that's $500 for one person for on show. I just wish the Mozart productions were on the schedule this year.

Monday night's simulcast at the Lyric Opera House was indeed magical. Although I have seen most of the simulcasts in 3 different movie theaters for the past 2 years and have enjoyed them immensely, the Lyric was by far the best venue. No more waiting in line an hour ahead of time hoping to get a good seat and no more glitches wondering if the technician is still around. At the Lyric with its 2400 seats you are guaranteed a choice seat. And even more, the atmosphere for grand opera is perfect at the Lyric.

As a brand new member of the BOC board of trustees, I'm excited about simulcasts at the Lyric because they are a great opportunity to share our passion for opera with more people, especially students and young people!

Reading Tim Smith's blog makes me miss living in Baltimore just a little bit less.

Just a thought about the appeal of the HD broadcasts.
Last winter I was staying at a Bed and Breakfast in Montreal. At breakfast one morning one of my fellow guests brough up the subject of opera. She lived in some tiny remote town in northern Canada (I think on Big Bear Lake), and she loved opera, listening on radio to the Saturday matinees for years.. She told my partner and me how wonderful the HD broadcasts are. These broadcasts came to her home town where no one really has the opportunity or the money to go to New York and see opera live.
Until then I was skeptical about these broadcasts - -I have changed my mind - --knowing that opera fans from very remote places now have opportunities that didn't exist before.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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