January 1, 2007

"OPERA WITH POPCORN":

An Opera at the Met That’s Real and ‘Loud’ (ANTHONY TOMMASINI, 1/01/07, NY Times)

Even before the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday matinee of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” began, this family-friendly version of Julie Taymor’s 2004 production looked to be a huge success. Children were everywhere, a rare sight at the venerable institution. They were having pictures taken in front of the house, dashing up and down the stairs of the Grand Promenade and, before long, sitting up in their seats all over the auditorium. [...]

I am on record as being no fan of Ms. Taymor’s production, which to me is a mishmash of imagery, so cluttered with puppets, flying objects and fire-breathing statues that it overwhelms Mozart’s music. But this show was not presented with me in mind. So let me offer the reactions of three young attendees. Amitav Mitra, my neighbor, who is 8, came as my guest. And Kira and Jonah Newmark, 9 and 7, the children of friends, were also glad to share their critiques afterwards.

For Amitav, this was his first opera. Though Jonah had seen opera videos at home with his sister, he too was trying the real thing for the first time. Kira, a burgeoning opera buff, has attended, as she put it, “real three-hour operas,” most recently “The Barber of Seville” at the New York City Opera.

Not surprisingly Ms. Taymor’s fanciful sets, costumes and puppets won raves from this trio of critics. But their most revealing comments were about the singing and the story.

The singing “was loud,” Amitav said. Jonah added, “It was too loud.” Kira more or less agreed. I pressed them about this. Today, when children hear amplified music everywhere, often channeled right into their ears through headphones, how could unamplified singing seem too loud?

Amitav clarified their reactions when he said that the singing was “too loud for human voices,” adding, “I never thought voices could do that.”

So their reaction was not a complaint about excessive volume, but rather an attempt to explain the awesome impression made by Ms. Miklosa’s dazzlingly high vocal flights as the Queen of the Night, or Mr. Pape’s unearthly powerful bass voice, or the amassed chorus in the temple scenes. It takes a while for young opera neophytes to adjust to such mind-boggling voices, to realize that this strange, unamplified “loudness” is actually amazing.

The other common reaction concerned the story, which all three children enjoyed. Kira, though, was struck by the gravity of Prince Tamino’s dilemma. “Tamino was a little too serious for me,” she said, adding: “He never does anything that’s funny. He takes things seriously.”

I think Mr. Levine, who conducted a glowing and elegant performance, would be pleased by Kira’s reaction. Mr. Levine made certain that some of the opera’s most somber episodes were included, like the long scene in which the confused Tamino is confronted by the austere Speaker (David Pittsinger), a stalwart member of Sarastro’s brotherhood, at the entrance to the temple.

Like most fairy tales “The Magic Flute” is a mysterious story of good and evil. Naturally, Ms. Taymor’s production makes the opera’s monsters quite charming, like the puppet bears who are enchanted by Tamino’s magic flute. And the boys singing the kindly Three Spirits (Bennett Kosma, Jesse Burnside Murray and Jacob A. Wade) are turned spectral and eerie, with their bodies painted white and Methuselah beards.

This “Magic Flute” was the first Met opera that was transmitted live in high-definition video to some 100 movie theaters around the world. Ultimately the point of this technological outreach is to entice newcomers into attending opera performances. The children I spoke with are likely to be back.

Summarizing his reactions to “The Magic Flute,” Jonah said, “I don’t think it’s going to be the best opera I’m going to go to in my life.” What he meant, explaining further, was, “I’m, like, going to go to others that will be even better.”


MORE:
Mozart in HD at the local cineplex: The Met beams 'The Magic Flute' live around the globe, but there are a few false notes — notably in Burbank. (James C. Taylor, January 1, 2007, LA Times)

The Burbank crowd was already buzzing by the time the lights went down and the Met's general director, Peter Gelb, appeared on-screen; excitement palpably rippled through the aisles when he introduced Katie Couric. The CBS news anchor read a few nice things about Mozart and then introduced James Levine. The Met's maestro raised his baton, the overture began and the live music was soon accompanied by a (prerecorded) montage of actors putting on costumes and makeup — complete with titles in the manner of a film's opening credits.

The opera began in earnest with Tamino (sung by Matthew Polenzani) chased by one of Taymor's giant puppet-dragons. Polenzani's voice was clear, and the HD image of the flamboyant production was vivid. The idea of opera in movie theaters appeared to be a perfect fit.

Then the music died.

The video feed was soon restored, but the audio remained spotty, culminating in the surreal experience of hearing the Queen of the Night's famous high-F aria ("Oh tremble not") as a duet with digital static. This prompted laughter from the audience and more than a few walkouts — one who advised people to "go rent the Bergman movie."

The audio problems continued throughout the 105-minute show, reaching a nadir when the sound went out completely under René Pape, arguably opera's preeminent bass. Pape looked like a fish gasping for air as he mouthed Sarastro's gorgeous music in silence. A theater representative quickly announced that refunds would be issued. Many audience members got up and left.

The show did go on. Roughly two-thirds of the crowd stuck it out. They were rewarded by finally hearing the fat lady — actually, svelte soprano Erika Miklósa — sing. The demons in the circuitry took a break during the Queen's second number. Her famous aria was entirely audible, with each coloratura curlicue heard cleanly. The audience roared — as much in appreciation for finally being able to listen to a full number as for Miklósa's performance.

When Mozart's last notes faded and the lights went up, the woman from Malibu was still there, but Ted, the night concierge, was not. In the lobby, there was an air of disappointment. "There's no excuse for this," said Steven Rosenthall, who used to work in cable television. "There are five networks in L.A. that have hi-def. This is not new technology." Noa Winter Lazerus, a composer, admitted he was saddened but insisted: "I love the concept, and I think people will give it another chance."

At the Edwards Irvine Spectrum 21, a full house applauded before, during and after the screening. With more than 500 seats, that theater was considerably larger than Burbank's and brought people from across Orange County and as far as the Valley and Pasadena.

Jerry Sternbach of Woodland Hills made the drive because "I, being an opera fan, wanted to support this. It's historical."

According to the Met, the broadcasts aired successfully to nearly 30,000 people around the world except in Burbank and in Jacksonville, Fla., where nothing showed up on the screen. Lauren Leff, a spokesperson for National CineMedia (the company that oversees the technical side to the telecasts), said the problems were the result of unspecified "localized difficulties."

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 1, 2007 11:20 AM
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