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Posted at 12:25 PM ET, 01/ 7/2011

Broadcast news

By Anne Midgette

When the Metropolitan Opera began airing live HD broadcasts of its operas in the 2006-07 season, it was widely predicted that the market for live HD opera broadcasts would be heating up. That prediction, however, has taken a while to come true. Union contracts played a role: the San Francisco Opera wanted to play, but thanks to its contract was only able to air taped HD recordings, which it’s now scaled back from national release to selected theaters on the West Coast. London’s Royal Opera House bought a production company, Opus Arte. The European opera houses started to explore their options. But while there’s been a lot of activity, you could say it took until this month for things really to take off.

Consider this weekend. On Saturday, January 8, audiences can see the live broadcast of “La Fanciulla del West” from the Metropolitan Opera (the Met website has information, the NCM/Fathom website, theater listings and tickets). On Sunday the 9th, the Los Angeles Philharmonic -- whose general manager, Deborah Borda, told me a couple of years ago that “if you had the New York or Los Angeles Philharmonic doing symphonic concerts in movie theaters across the country, it would not sell” -- is starting its own live HD movie-theater broadcast series: their wunderkind music director, Gustavo Dudamel, is conducting the orchestra in a program of Beethoven, Bernstein, and John Adams, the first of three scheduled broadcasts between now and June, also through NCM Fathom, meaning it will air in the same theaters as the Met broadcasts, including DC’s AMC Mazza Gallery and several theaters in Northern Virginia.

It doesn’t end there. On January 20, Daniel Harding will conduct “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” at La Scala, a performance with Salvatore Licitra and Jose Cura that will be broadcast live through Emerging Pictures’ “Opera in Cinema” series. The bad news is that there don’t seem to be any theaters near Washington showing it live; the good news is that the new West End Cinema on M Street is starting a weekly 8-part series of these opera broadcasts on Monday nights (the first is “La traviata” from the Royal Opera House with Renée Fleming and Joseph Calleja, on January 31st), and it will air this “Cav/Pag” on February 21st. (The Phoenix theater in Herndon, VA, is also showing Opera in Cinema broadcasts; the Charles Theater in Baltimore is not showing the series this fall due to unspecified internal reorganization issues, but hopes to resume it in the future.)

If the Met wants to hold its lead, it may have to step up its game. It has at least one potential obstacle ahead: the renegotiation of its contract with the unions. These HD broadcasts were only possible because Peter Gelb struck a convenient deal with the union last time round, but if they’ve become as much of a money-maker as the Met avers, you better believe the union is going to want a piece of that action in its new contacts.

The Met may also have overextended with the encore performances -- that is, the rebroadcasts of its HD shows (“Fanciulla” will re-air on January 26). According to one unhappy member of the audience for the Don Carlo encore broadcast at Ballston Common this past Wednesday night, individual theaters are responsible for DVR-ing the show for rebroadcast, and the quality of what was shown here was extremely poor, from both a visual and an audio standpoint. The manager of the Ballston theater declined to comment; I’m waiting for the Met to get back to me with their response, which I'll post here when it comes in. I’m curious, though, to hear about other readers’ experience with the Met encore performances; have you noticed a decline in quality, or was this an isolated event? Thanks in advance to all you citizen journalists.

By Anne Midgette  | January 7, 2011; 12:25 PM ET
Categories:  national, news, opera  
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My bigger problem is the direction of the Met HD transmission itself. There's lots of short cuts and rolling camera sequences for no discernible reason. They start by being distracting, but then actively annoy. And I'm 36, grew up on MTV videos, but this is entirely unnecessary. I am giving up on the Met HDs if this happens in another screening.

La Scala's broadcast was better in this regard. I saw Die Valkyrie with Nina Stemme the other month, and apart from the tiny issue around the subtitles, the direction of the transmission was as good as it gets.

So, steady those cameras, Met, and reign in the boys with the Blair Witch aspirations in the control room, or you'll lose viewers.

Posted by: DefinitelytheOpera | January 7, 2011 12:58 PM | Report abuse

In the last 2 years, I have attended two encore broadcasts and probably six or seven live broadcasts.

I have found that the quality of the experience is very dependent upon the venue. One local theater I originally attended failed grievously on three counts--frequent audio problems, failure to dim the lights after intermission, and signal lose for several minutes.

At all multiplex theaters, the booming from neighboring theaters is an unpleasant distraction.

I saw Der Rosenkavalier both live and encore at another local theater and the broadcasts were equally wonderful; I found no discernible difference in quality. This theater is now my “goto” HD opera house.

Posted by: bmbar | January 7, 2011 2:15 PM | Report abuse

I had a wonderful time at Cinemark Tinseltown in Rochester, NY, on Wednesday evening, as did all the other people who were in attendance. The image and sound quality were in my opinion outstanding. I look forward to seeing more of these superlative broadcasts.

You should have heard the comments in the audience during intermission: all very positive. People were actually applauding in the movie theater.

Posted by: Michael_Amy35 | January 7, 2011 2:46 PM | Report abuse

If the theater in question which shows a poor andio/video encore of a Met Opera Live in HD performance, it is because they are not following the Met Operas minimum specifications for recording satellite broadcasts OR and its a big OR, the projectionist left in charge of the encore performance hasn't got a clue how to set up and use the digital HD projector and digital sound system. Encores which are properly digitally recorded are indistinguishable from the original live broadcast.

Posted by: sharpjack | January 7, 2011 4:32 PM | Report abuse

I too have had a poor experience at Ballston Common. I saw an encore performance of Das Rheingold last October and was very disappointed in the video and audio quality. It certainly was NOT in HD.

Posted by: zhayhurst | January 7, 2011 5:09 PM | Report abuse

It is very surprising that the GM of the Ballston Common movie theaters, Anna Boggs, had no comment when Anne Midgette contacted her. Surely she knew that her manager on duty handed out many free re-entry passes at the October Rheingold encore, and again this past wednesday at the Don Carlo encore.

If I were a senior manager at Regal Cinemas, this is what I would want her to say:

"I'm sorry. We have identified the problem. It was (pick from: a: operator error--we fired him. or, b: a machine problem--we just installed a new one). We are sure we now have the problem solved. We'd like to invite Anne Midgette--or any other WP reporter--to observe this afternoon's live broadcast of La Fancuilla to see how the recording works, to watch how we check it for quality immediately after, and to come back in several weeks for the scheduled encore to see how it works."

Until Ms. Boggs can say something like this in public, no one should attend a Met Encore at Ballston Common Regal Cinemas. If she can't say something like this fairly quickly, top management at Regal should replace her with someone who can.

I hope others will others will post the locations of area theaters that are able to present an Encore with no problems.

As Anne points out in her WP article from 2008 (linked to in her post), a primary reason for the Met's HD broadcast is to reach existing operagoers with a fundraising appeal. Inflicting a terrible technical experience on a theater full of opera fans is not effective fundraising.

Posted by: soccer_ref | January 8, 2011 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Of the three live Met HD broadcasts at Ballston Common this year, 2 have been almost unwatchable because of poor quality sound. They handed out passes at the end today, but can't seem to do anything about fixing the problem. I've complained to Regal and the Met.

Posted by: Arlingtonian1 | January 8, 2011 5:41 PM | Report abuse

Alas, it is not only at Ballston Commons where there have been problems. We went to the encore presentation of Don Carlo at AMC Tyson's Corner last Wednesday and the whole presentation up to the first intermission was unwatchable. The film was squeezed into the wrong format and was shown in black and white. The sound was equally poor.
This is the third time we have been to Tyson's Corner (normally we go to AMC Mazza Gallerie) and each time there have been problems. At the first, Romeo et Juliette, the film kept breaking down, and at the second, Turandot, the whole performance looked as though it had been filmed in a coal mine. The Met is poorly served by such mediocre presentations. I can only conclude the theaters need better technicians who are able to handle the material.

Posted by: verdilover | January 9, 2011 2:56 PM | Report abuse

Ballston had problems from the first HD live transmission a few years ago. Their equipment is bad. Mazza and some other locations are much better. The Met should really take away the rights from Ballston and give them to a more deserving theatre. I really feel sorry for the folks that went to Don Carlo. We saw a superb performance at a different venue and heard about the Ballston problems.

Posted by: Mike-Klein | January 13, 2011 7:29 PM | Report abuse

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