Belly of the Whale: Meet You at the Met Nov06

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Belly of the Whale: Meet You at the Met


A blogumn by Howard Leder

People ask me all the time: “How can I get into opera?”  I assume what they’re asking is not so much how can I launch a singing career & get in a road company for the Marriage of Figaro, but rather what do I need to do to go to & enjoy an opera.  Since I studied singing as an undergrad & worked for several years for one of the larger U.S. opera companies–and can be heard frequently raving on & on about this or that production I just saw–I love answering this question.

People want to know where to start.  Two things always seem like the biggest impediment: the (ridiculously) high ticket prices & the somewhat esoteric nature of the whole preceding.  Everybody of course has heard the big names: La Boheme, Carmen, The Magic Flute, but past that, it seems like a lot of white noise, difficult to sort out & understand.

To the rescue, the Metropolitan Opera in New York has recently introduced a novel way of presenting opera: they beam Hi Def transmissions of their live productions into movie theaters all over the country. In Los Angeles, the operas screen at several movie theaters throughout the area; the screening times are usually at 10 am.  I’ve been to a number of them now, and I highly recommend it.

One of the main selling points for the Met in HD is the price: $22.  Compared to the steep prices charged at the actual Met, this is an incredible bargain.  It provides a great way to dip your toe in the operatic pool without a lot of risk.  If you don’t like it, no sweat.  (The Met in HD screens at USC as well, where admission is free….even better in our economically challenged times……)

Beyond just the cost, though, the events themselves are pretty fun & the broadcasts exceptionally well produced.  One of the main challenges to appreciating opera is the distance from the stage. The average opera house in America seats 2500-3000 people.  Unless you’re willing & able to spend upwards of $150 a seat, you end up sitting pretty far from the stage.  The Met in HD broadcasts overcome this limitation through close-ups and other standard cinematic devices.  This is not the typical Met Broadcast on PBS of yore.  The camera work tends to be excellent, well planned out & executed to heighten the story & musical impact.  This sort of opera-movie hybrid allows the kind of intimacy of movies & TV while still giving you the musical ravishment that opera is all about.  In addition, there are little featurettes during the intermissions that take you backstage to meet the singers & artisans who bring the whole thing to life.

Now, I’m writing this mainly to get you all to go to one of the upcoming HD broadcasts: John Adams’ Dr. AtomicAdams is a Bay Area based composer who works in a minimalist style, which on the surface is similar to Philip Glass or Steve Reich.  Adams’ large operas (and they’re big on a Wagnerian scale) have come to be known as “CNN Operas,” since they tackle themes & stories from our own time & headlines.  His first major stage work was “Nixon in China,” which mythologized President Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972.  Following that, he wrote the controversial Death of Klinghofer, an operatic treatment of the hijacking of the cruise liner the Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists in the 1980’s. (You can hear excerpts from Nixon at the blog of Alex Ross, classical music critic for The New Yorker–scroll to the bottom of the page to hear)

I’ve been insanely enamored with Adams’ music since I first heard it as a college freshman.  It’s made out of what seem like a series of chugging, motorized repetitions that build to otherworldly climaxes.  A short, key example of this you can hear in his piece Short Ride in a Fast Machine.

Adams’ new opera Dr. Atomic had its premiere in 2005 in San Francisco.  It tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer & the Manhattan Project to develop the first atom bomb in the desert of New Mexico.  The text of the opera is culled from the actual letters & documents of participants in the Manhattan Project, mixed together with lines from the Bhagavad Gita and various poets.  As in Adams’ other large-scale works, the effect is multi-layered & fascinating, taking you from the one of the most significant, grand historical events of the last century (the detonation of the atom bomb) to the intimate feelings & worries of the participants.  Several gorgeous excerpts from the piece–including the astonishing aria “Batter My Heart” set to the poem by John Donne–are currently up at The New Yorker website.

But regardless of whether you go to Dr. Atomic, do peruse the Met’s website for their other upcoming productions.  Maybe there is another opera that will catch your eye & ear.  The Met is generally the best of the American opera houses.  The singing & orchestral playing & design are always at the absolute highest level you are likely to hear.  And think of this as the gateway drug that could lead to you going to the opera house & taking in a live show.

The Met in HD broadcast will take place Saturday, November 8th at 1 p.m. Eastern Time with an encore presentation on Nov. 19th. Theater locations can be found here.


Photo Credit: Shira Golding