| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:14

    The single empty seat for the high-definition simulcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s 125th Anniversary opening-night gala (stick with me here) was in the back of a crowded Chelsea Clearview Cinema theater. I was balancing a Diet Coke in one hand and a small bag of popcorn in the other, when I heard the guy who I was about to sit next to comment to his friend under his breath— but, you know, loud enough so I could hear it—“Oh, Gawd. Here comes the popcorn...”

    This situation may be familiar to many opera fans who, over the past two-and-a-half years, have eagerly attended the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” movie theater simulcasts, where $22 gets you a live performance, equal access to sound and stage and the freedom to dress casually and snack during the show.

    When I asked Milton Sonday, 65, what his problem was with my popcorn, he demurred, saying only that it was some kind of “family thing.” Umm, OK...

    But to be civil, I promised Milton that I’d stop eating before the performance began; this was a compromise he seemed awkwardly reluctant to accept, possibly because I had called him out on being a dick. Nonetheless, I stayed true to my word. The simulcast ensued. And Milton and his friend, Terrence Dean, 55, both bitched about some of the tackier gowns that were coming down the red carpet The Met had rolled out for its September gala: “She looks like she’s wearing a hard candy wrapper.” Nice.

    The casual atmosphere of the cinema is inviting for many—like myself—who feel the institution of opera, particularly at the Met, imposes an outdated mandate for ritzy clothes and social etiquette of a bygone era. Andrea Stillman, a middle-aged businesswoman who sat on my other side during opening-night, scarfed down a sandwich before the show.

    “I think it’s a brilliant idea,” she said, relieved that she doesn’t have to change her clothes after work and can sneak in a little food beforehand. “I might not go to the live opera at all this year.”

    But not all simulcast fans are on board with these new freedoms. In fact, HD audiences—who last year outnumbered actual bodies in The Met’s opera house—seem to be divided between those of us who, say, enjoy shoving fistfuls of popcorn into our mouths while Juan Diego Flórez launches nine high Cs into the air, and others who think the popcorn is distracting, déclassé and a downright nuisance.

    Karen Brooks Hopkins, president of Brooklyn Academy of Music (the only participating venue in Brooklyn) says that while BAM audiences have overwhelmingly enjoyed the simulcast experience, she admits that there’s a rift between the pro- and antipopcorn crowds. “Opera is like a religion to these people," she said, referring to the popcorn haters.

    For most members of the opposition, however, the gripe is mainly about noise. Mary Hurley, an opera fan who visits ParterreBox.com (arguably one of the most popular opera blogs on the Internet), canceled her Family Circle subscription this year because it’s now easier for her to attend the simulcasts in Boston. “Love the HD simulcast. HATE the popcorn,” she wrote in an email, adding that an “annoying woman on the aisle seat chomped continually during Eugene Onegin...I’m not particularly fussy, but the noise was really disruptive.”

    This acute sensitivity to noise interruption seems to be at the heart of the crisis. As an opera-goer, I can relate. I’ve had my own encounters with clueless noisemakers in the opera house—it’s extraordinary the amount of damage a slowly unwrapped peppermint can do—but I’m also wary of just how much this highbrow mind-set seems to have bled into the cinema, where the stakes of missing a few notes of a broadcast seem—at least to the less hardcore—to be enjoyably lower.

    At 32 years old, I’m qualifiedly among the youngest generation of opera enthusiasts. I came to opera rather late in the game (Milton and many others proudly discovered opera as young children). It wasn’t until I heard an excerpt from Alban Berg’s Wozzeck during an undergraduate music history course that I noticed opera’s potential to be staggeringly powerful theater. As a grad student in music composition at the Mannes College of Music, I put in my time in the Family Circle standing room: with $15 tickets that plop you in the farthest possible vantage point from the stage (although it’s generally agreed among insiders that you actually get some of the nicest sound up there). And as a young composer, eager to dive into the live opera experience, I often encountered disappointment by having my appreciation for the genre (not to mention my advocacy and expertise) rebuffed by outdated notions of class bias that still plague places like the Met.

    For example, I once opted for orchestra standing room ($5 more, worse sound, but closer to the stage) for a performance of Stravinsnky’s The Rake’s Progress. It’s “modern” fare, so I figured it wouldn’t be sold out, and I could squat in one of the empty seats once the opera had started. Much to my humiliation, the Met ushers literally roped the standing room crowd in to prevent us from interloping on the vacant seats, at least until after the first intermission— about an hour later.That has been the Met’s official policy. Infuriated, I rustled my courage and jumped the rope, and sat myself down a few modest rows forward, even though there were at least 10 more rows of empty seats. I wasn’t trying to scam the Met; I just wanted to be closer, because I looooved Stravinsky.

    Soon after, an usher, armed with little more than fire in his eyes, accosted me and threatened to kick me out if I didn’t get back in the standing-room coral. As an opera fan, I couldn’t leave. And as a poor opera fan, I had no power to threaten to cancel my family’s perpetual contribution to the Met endowment. So I lowered my head and dragged my hooves back to the herd. It’s situations like this that leave would-be opera fanatics at a loss and longing for a less demoralizing cultural experience.

    With cinema’s natural disposition toward audience equality—uniform ticket prices and first-come, first-serve seating reward those with the greatest interest (although BAM now ropes off the best seats for its higher price-ticket brunch guests: annoying)—the HD simulcasts may be the best answer to come along.

    I had a chance to make peace with Milton (who also told me he cancelled his Met subscription this year) when I spoke to him at length during the first of the gala’s two intermissions, and found out that he actually sees the simulcast as a refuge from an increasingly unruly opera house. “I’m getting very annoyed with people who come to the Met,” he explained, lamenting that there are too many moments when people rustling shopping bags or even talking over the performance interrupt the music. Milton pointed out how, once the simulcast of the gala started, there was this intense quiet and concentration on the performance. (I noticed it as well.) For Milton, that seems to be what the opera experience is about: an absolute—and quiet—respect for the art. “It’s not a football game.”

    This is all at a time, however, when the institution of classical music is increasingly under scrutiny for sustaining elitist attitudes and practices that seem to have alienated it from popular culture. The New York Times, the New Yorker and New York magazine have all published articles in the past year that challenge, in one way or another, classical music’s penchant for the sedate and cerebral musical experience.The blogosphere is also buzzing with this kind of populist chatter. The general consensus from critics is that classical concerts, including opera, need to lighten up or risk extinction—or, at the very least, a future marked by obscurity.

    Peter Gelb, now into his third year as general manager of the Met, would seem to agree with these critics.The HD program is his brainchild and, along with a handful of other initiatives, aims at extending opera’s reach into mainstream culture and broadening opera’s base of supporters by eroding the line between high and low culture— which has the purists worried.

    But this conflict is nothing new. David Sterritt, chair of the National Society of Film Critics and adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, sees the simulcasts as an extension of a trend in making opera accessible through technology that’s been going on for about 40 years, a trend that has always been met with resistance by the rather snobbish establishment of opera fanatics. Sterritt recalls how audiences booed the Opera Company of Boston when, in the late 1960s, then-director Sarah Cladwell introduced projections of synopses before each act.Today, sub- and super-titles are standard in opera performance—even for those sung in English.

    Surprisingly, hardcore opera fans—despite their trepidations—have flocked to the simulcasts, not only because they grant one an intimacy with the performers and the music not possible in traditional opera houses but also…because they’re fun.

    Upon entering the movie theater, the sound of the orchestra warming up evokes the same pinch of rarity and excitement found at a real concert. It’s just like going to the opera, only less intimidating. Some venues offer a variety of concessions, including bar service. The Met’s official policy is to allow cinemas to serve refreshments during simulcasts, so antipopcorn hardliners will be left to wage that battle in the megaplex. Simulcast fans almost unanimously agree that the sound in the cinema is better (although this can vary depending on the theater, so try to avoid the Walter Reade). Even though the party line is that “there’s no substitute” for the acoustic opera experience, not having to struggle through gaping distances or potential dead spots is a godsend.

    Before the performance begins, sweeping pans of the opera house expose thumbprint patterns where the rich and diehards have worn down the backs of the auditorium’s red velvet seats. The crystal chandeliers—which received a retrofit over the summer—spray little stars of light over the camera lens, adding an extra layer of opulence to the velvet and crystal interior.

    Close-ups of the orchestra reveal the richly polished African rosewood panels that line the convex shell of the pit. To further enlighten the cinema audiences, the Met tries to coerce viewers with congenial hosts like Met stars Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt and Natalie Dessay (I guess it always has to be a chick), who conduct between-the-act interviews with creators, conductors and performers. Despite the high median age of simulcast audiences—I honestly see more young people at the opera house than I do at the simulcasts—and aside from the occasional hiss (Milton let out a pretty nice one at a couple who were talking during the final act), they tend to be rather spirited groups of people.

    During the gala pre-show, a conspicuous pre-curtain shot of Martha Stewart standing at her seat, draped in gold and showing some skin, garnered knowing chuckles and a few cheers.Wry accolades returned at the end of the second intermission, when Stewart was brought aside to demonstrate how to make a particular variety of champagne cocktail to gala host and diva-in-her-ownright Susan Graham. No joke. All of this, for the true opera fan, is absolute camp.

    Being intelligent voyeurs of an experience they already know so well, they’re qualified to send it up. This is enhanced by the fact that the patrons at the opera house don’t have to endure any of it; they even get let out to intermission while the simulcast audience has to deal with yet more special features before they raise the cinema lights.

    So a sense of sequestered camaraderie rules the simulcast audiences; kind of like the empowerment children find once they realize that “the kids’ table” is where all the fun is. Screw the adults:We’re going to eat with our hands. But when it comes to the music, most simulcast fans shut up. “By and large, audiences are respectful,” says Dan Patterson, 61, a resident of Houston who identifies himself as a “hardcore” opera fan, but also says he would fall on the pro-popcorn side of the debate.When asked if he’s the kind of fan that would hiss at a noisy neighbor, he replied, “Sure. I’ll turn and glare. ‘Shhh…’ You know. Whatever.”

    But he also admitted that he doesn’t have the same expectations at the movie theater. Like most simulcast fans, Dan also enjoys dressing down. “That was one of the things I always hated, was feeling like I had to dress up to go to the opera house.”

    A few holdouts still attend simulcasts done up in sequined jackets or unwieldy Pashminas. But for the most part, you see a lot of T-shirts and jeans—and comfortable shoes. As much as the old guard of opera wants to maintain a lockdown on the etiquette of concentration, they’re relishing the lax dress code, which seems to indicate that the conflict in the cinema is not so much about opulence as much as it is about appreciation.

    "There’s not a bad seat in the house," says Dan Diamond, vice president of National CineMedia’s Fathom Entertainment division, the technological partner of the simulcast initiative.

    Dan believes that the cinema’s accessibility is not only appealing to opera fans but is also conducive to exposing newcomers to the opera experience. “There’s a unique dynamic in movie theaters,” he explains. “The barriers of entry are not as high as they are in opera houses.”

    Nor is Dan surprised at the success of the program. For its third year, the simulcasts—which frequently sell out in New York—are expected to surge into over 800 venues in more than 15 countries. “The demographic goes beyond the core audience,” he says. “The ardent opera fan is in attendance. And they’re bringing their families and friends.”

    According to a poll conducted last year by Opera America, over 5 percent of simulcast audiences had never been to a live opera before, and 20 percent had not been to a live performance in the last two years.

    The research also suggests that attending a simulcast is likely to encourage people to attend a live performance. Indeed, the Met has seen a spike in ticket sales. But it’s a difficult proposition, especially for regional symphonies and opera companies. Robert Spano, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director, often conducts in New York and just last week conducted Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar opera at Carnegie Hall, has experienced it personally.The Met’s simulcast of its Doctor Atomic production played a week ahead of the ASO’s Atlanta production of the John Adams opera. They were worried it would hurt ticket sales but it seemed to do the opposite.

    “No we don’t think it helped or hurt us; it didn’t matter,” says Spano. “Ours was so different, the audience got to experience it in a unique way.” And where does he fall on the popcorn battlefield? “I don’t care.They can do whatever they want. It doesn’t bother me.”

    Partisanship aside, what is most impressive about the HD effect is that it proves, in a very powerful way, that more open access generates interest. On the opening night this fall, there were people watching from Times Square, the opera house, Fordham University, cinemas in North and South America (and in Mexico City for the first time, the hometown of tenor Ramón Vargas, who was able to give a shout-out to his friends and family), in addition to the Sirius radio broadcast that reached the ears of countless other fans. I couldn’t help but wonder at the communal experience of theater that was taking place, which is what opera, ultimately, is about. The sheer amount of exposure that The Met and opera have gotten under Mr. Gelb is awesome. Even if all of his initiatives aren’t exactly in line with the ideals of his company’s most ardent fans, there is clearly more good going on than bad. But there’s still some fine tuning that needs to be done. First, not all things that look good on stage from 100 feet away translate as effectively as when blown up on the big screen.

    In a simulcast of La Bohme, Angela Gheorghiu, as Mimi, was upstaged in her death scene by a white lace glove (note to costumes department:White always comes out bigger on film).

    And the same high-def technology that allows you to see tears well up in Patricia Racette’s eyes in Peter Grimes also allows you to see the vacant piercings in her ears. Likewise, wandering eyes of bored or distracted chorus members read huge.Then there are occasions where the simulcast audience doesn’t get the same uninterrupted performance the Met audience is privileged to. Transmission glitches have impaired a couple simulcasts I’ve attended. A broadcast of Peter Grimes at BAM was entirely blacked out due to technical failure.

    Worse yet, in this season’s HD installment of Salome, cameras were directed to cut away from Karita Mattila (in the title role), just as she was to go full frontal at the end of the dance of the seven veils. Ms. Mattila is a pretty daring performer, but maybe even she didn’t wish to have her lady parts magnified in HD and transmitted around the world. All this aside, the HD program is good for opera. It’s given the genre a revamped national presence, and it does bring in fresh blood.

    Now, if the hardcore fanatics (who don’t like being called fanatics, by the way) can just take the attitude down a notch and not scare away the 5-percent crowd—the nasty shushes and shrieks can really be jarring to the uninitiated—there’s potential for this program to create real change in the size of opera’s fan base, as well as in opera’s reach to the general public. Broadcasts are now also making it into the classroom—a potential windfall for a national public school system that’s paralyzed when it comes to music education—which should be desired if one truly loves opera and wants it to thrive.

    Perhaps the last thing we need is for this new experience, and a genuine solution to opera’s PR problem, to be derailed by the fearsome habits of “the base.” Remember the crowds at those rabid McCain/Palin rallies? Not exactly inviting, were they? Plus, if the total global economic meltdown persists, expect demand for cheap HD seats to spike accordingly. Milton, my man, get ready for the invasion! My advice? Make some compromises: Popcorn lovers, go for the gold, but be mindful not to chomp during pianissimos or death scenes. And opera queens, maybe give the new crowd a break. Our only real option here is to learn to get along. Maybe we can have our opera…and eat our popcorn, too.

    The next simulcast is Saturday, Dec. 20 (Noon EST), featuring Renée Fleming in Massenet’s Thas. For more information, visit [metoperafamily.org.]