I’ve made and bought a lot of gifts for my mom over the years, and other than a three-hour backrub, by far the best present I ever gave her was a trip to the opera. During one of her visits here she was over the moon to experience LA Opera’s production of Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.” She still talks about it. Not even nosebleed seats could dim her delight..
Like many other people, she lives in a small town where there’s no proper concert venue to host touring opera companies, and making the three-hour trek to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City is not financially feasible. Single tickets for the Met’s current production, Thomas Adès’ surrealist opera “The Exterminating Angel,” start at $75 or $125 — and those are the cheap seats. (Not that they aren’t worth it, especially considering the number of musicians and crew members involved in a typical production.) So she was thrilled when a nearby cinema began to broadcast “The Met: Live in HD.” Forking over 25 bucks on a retiree’s fixed budget is far less daunting, especially when she can hear it in surround sound and watch filmed backstage artist interviews during intermission. Launched in 2006, the Met’s successful program of high-definition simulcasts has inspired numerous other opera, ballet and theater companies to extend the reach of their individual productions with event-level transmissions to theaters and audiences around the world.
Saturday morning, Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 theater will be broadcasting the simulcast of “The Exterminating Angel,” conducted by Adès and directed by librettist Tom Cairns. Filmed live on the Met stage and sung in English, it’s based on Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film and carries more than an echo of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist classic “No Exit” as it imagines a hellish dinner party in circa-1960s Calle de la Providencia where guests discover they are inexplicably trapped. Death, desire and explosive passion all figure in the story — this is opera, after all — along with high society, apocalyptic dread, animal sacrifice, suicide, class divides, and a performing bear. The orchestration includes tiny violins and high notes so rarely performed that The New York Times recently interviewed coloratura soprano Audrey Luna about the high A she sings as Leticia.
Adès’ bold work is an outlier in a season dominated by tradition and familiarity. Last month, “Live in HD” broadcast Bellini’s “Norma” and Mozart’s “Die Zauberflote.” On Jan. 27 it will simulcast Puccini’s “Tosca,” followed by Donizetti’s “L’Elisire D’Amore” (Feb. 10), Puccini’s “La Boheme” (Feb. 24), Rossini’s “Semiramide” (March 10), Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” (March 31), Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” (April 14) and Massenet’s “Cendrillon” (April 28).
For all that it’s now commonly perceived as music for rich elitists and the gray-haired set, opera was once considered popular entertainment. Reform movements in the 17th century nudged it beyond royal courts into more public venues, and Gilbert & Sullivan’s 19th-century light operas and pop-savvy 20th-century composers like George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein made it more accessible to mainstream audiences. Now, opera houses like the Met are looking for ways to rethink opera’s inherent grandeur and grow audiences without resorting to Broadway’s trend of commissioning musical remakes of Hollywood movies.
Whether these simulcasts represent salvation or yet another threat to the economic viability of live opera and other performing arts, especially at the community level, remains a bigger topic of heated debate. The simple fact is that they place operatic spectacle many individuals could not otherwise afford within reach. The challenge is to translate appreciation of filmed performances into affordable access to the real thing in a way that supports all those artistic platforms. n
Metropolitan Opera’s live performance of “The Exterminating Angel” will be broadcast live at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, at 9:55 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 18; $24 general admission/$22 seniors/$18 children 11 and under. Info: (310) 478-3836. Metopera.org, Laemmle.com/theaters/6