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13 Dec 2018

Importing Opera: Movie-Theater Broadcasts of Shows From The Met Fill a Genre Void in the Coachella Valley

Written by  James Reel
Juan Diego Flórez as Alfredo and Diana Damrau as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata. Juan Diego Flórez as Alfredo and Diana Damrau as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata. Marty Sohl/Met Opera

In a world where Coachella Valley residents must drive an hour or more to see a full-scale opera, several local movie theaters dare to screen wanton warblers and bronzed barihunks performing live at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

This season, the Mary Pickford 14 and a handful of local chain-owned multiplexes are projecting real-time performances from the Met in high-definition video transmitted by satellite. The theaters are among around 2,000 movie houses in 66 countries picking up the live operacasts. Each season, the Met offers 10 of the two-dozen opera productions it keeps in its annual repertory to movie-house audiences, splitting the profits from admission with the local theaters.

The sampling is usually a good representation of the Met’s fare, this season ranging from the ever-popular Carmen and La Traviata through such edge-of-repertory items as Adriana Lecouvreur.

The satellite transmissions began in late 2006 and initially stirred some controversy. Opera companies in mid-sized communities fretted that the Met program would steal audience from local, live productions. The Met countered that by taking its world-class presentations to the provinces, at a price lower than that charged by opera houses ($23.50, in the case of the shows at the Mary Pickford 14), it would actually generate more interest in local live efforts.

After 12 years, there’s no hard data to support either claim. But the question is moot in the Coachella Valley, a veritable operatic desert. The Palm Springs Opera Guild undertakes an extensive education program, but its annual Opera in the Park affair in Palm Springs (next scheduled for April 7, 2019) is a concert of operatic greatest hits rather than a full-scale production of a single work. And while Palm Desert’s McCallum Theatre hosts an array of ambitious touring shows, opera tends not to be among them—unless you count Rent, a rock treatment of the tale told in Puccini’s La Bohème.

Damon Rubio, the owner of D’Place Entertainment, which manages the Mary Pickford 14, said he brings in The Met’s opera series to fill the Coachella Valley’s operatic void.

“It’s a really unique way to experience these amazing productions that you can’t otherwise experience unless you get on a jet and fly to New York,” Rubio said,

Six productions remain in this season of the series formally known as The Met: Live in HD. All of the productions will be broadcast on Saturday mornings, with encore showings the following Wednesday afternoons (and some evenings).

Verdi’s La Traviata (9:55 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 15; encore at 1 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 19) is certainly one of the five most-popular operas around. Through several familiar arias and ensemble numbers, it tells not of Verdi’s usual strife among kings and princesses; instead, it focuses on a sickly courtesan, the young man who loves her, and the father who comes to regret tearing them apart. Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Flórez star as the lovers; the Met’s incoming artistic director (replacing the disgraced James Levine), Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conducts.

Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (9:55 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 12; encore at 1 and 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 16), is one of those edge-of-repertory staples familiar to hard-core opera lovers, but known mainly for a single aria to less-obsessive fans. It’s a late-Romantic effusion notorious for its confusing plot revolving around the poisoning-by-violets (hey, it’s Italian opera) of a famous actress. Anna Netrebko brings star power to the title role.

Bizet’s Carmen (9:55 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 2; encore at 1 and 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 6), is probably the best opera for newbies. The story is easy to follow; the characters are colorful (a gypsy who draws an impetuous Spanish army officer into a ring of smugglers, but dumps the poor schmuck for a celebrity bullfighter); and it contains the most hummable tunes ever (which were the basis of the only good episode of Gilligan’s Island). The Met is using this as a showcase for mezzo Clémentine Margaine, who seems to sing hardly anything else.

Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment) (9:55 a.m., Saturday, March 2; encore at 1 and 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 6), despite the preponderance of soldiers onstage, is actually a light romantic comedy that nevertheless challenges the vocal abilities of the lead soprano. In this case, the aptly named Pretty Yende is the titular daughter in a production that has been updated from the 19th century to World War I. Perhaps the most intriguing element is a non-singing cameo by actress Kathleen Turner.

Wagner’s Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) (9 a.m., Saturday, March 30; encore at 12:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 3) is known to generations of cartoon-lovers as the source of the Elmer Fudd aria “Kill the Wabbit.” It’s everything about opera that the animated short skewers: women sporting breastplates and spears, heroes who aren’t all that smart, dark and craggy settings, a beefy orchestra, and a whole lotta hootin’ and hollerin’. Oh, there’s also incestuous love, and a woman whose Norse god of a father strips her of her immortality and traps her in a ring of fire. Always the big question with the Met’s productions of Wagner’s Ring operas: Will the enormous, complex stage machinery break down?

Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites (9 a.m., Saturday, May 11; encore at 1 p.m., Wednesday, May 15) is set in a convent during the darkest days of the French Revolution, and ends with one of the most compelling choral scenes in all opera: One by one, each of the nuns is silenced as she falls victim to the guillotine. The work dates from the late 1950s, but aside from a few piquantly sour harmonies typical of Poulenc, it is not dense and atonal, as was common at that time. The versatile Isabel Leonard, a Met stalwart for the past 10 years, takes the lead role.

While some may dismiss the experience of watching a live show broadcast on a screen, Rubio said the Live in HD series is actually a superior experience in some ways.

“When you’re seeing it on the big screen, it’s like you have a front-row seat every time,” Rubio said. “The sound quality is great, and that lends a ‘wow’ factor. I’m actually more appreciative (of these shows) after watching them on the big screen. I am blown away by the production values.”

For more information on The Met: Live in HD, visit www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas. For more information on the Mary Pickford 14, visit dplaceentertainment.com/location/mary-pickford. Jimmy Boegle contributed to this story.

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