COLUMBIA — On Christmas Day in 1931, NBC radio broadcast a Metropolitan Opera performance of “Hansel und Gretel,” Humperdinck’s spin on the dark tale of two lost children taken in by a witch living in a gingerbread house.
It was the first time a Met opera had been broadcast in its entirety, but it wasn’t the first time the Met had tried to make itself accessible to a much broader audience. As early as 1910, the Met transmitted bits of “Tosca” from the top of the opera house, reaching a few hundred listeners.
In 1948, ABC television, in flickering black and white, aired a production of “Otello,” which reached viewers in the Northeast. In 1977, the Met began a partnership with PBS for its “Great Performances” series. And on Saturday afternoons during the season, you can still find live broadcasts from the Met, on radio and through the Internet. Until 2004, the radio broadcasts were sponsored for more than 60 years by Texaco.
Last year, however, the Met began a new kind of outreach: broadcasting live matinees in high-definition, or HD, at a movie theater near you. Starting Saturday, “The Met in HD” begins in Columbia with a performance of “Romeo et Juliette.”
“I think this program singularly ripped down that wall (between) opera as an elitist art form and opera for the masses,” said Julie Borchard-Young, who oversees worldwide HD distribution for the Met.
Borchard-Young said the Met wants opera to remain relevant for new generations. Although unfamiliarity may be an obstacle for some viewers, great storytelling remains the same, no matter the medium. The Met’s programming, use of subtitles and unique format have made opera more accessible, Borchard-Young said.
Opera used to have much wider appeal, said Michael Budds and Judith Mabary, professors of music history and literature at MU. Mabary said opera’s contemporary image may be a turnoff.
“Overall, in the general public, opera is perceived as an elitist art form,” Mabary said. “I think primarily it comes from a lack of understanding. It seems foreign when a listener’s experience is with the popular music tradition.”
Mabary cited the language barrier and the fact that the stories can seem “irrelevant” to modern audiences used to action-packed entertainment.
Act I: A bygone era
Opera didn’t always seem so stiff. Budds said that before the time of Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901, a night at the opera meant an “opera sandwich” of serious opera intermixed with comic opera. Patrons carried on side business more fitting at a racetrack — gambling, flirting and loud conversation — than a modern-day opera house.
“There would be all sorts of things going on in the opera house,” Budds said. “It wasn’t high religion like it was in the 19th century.”
However, when Queen Victoria was in the audience, theatergoers had to observe a “certain kind of decorum,” Budds said. Audiences were more restrained, but the middle class was drawn to opera and spoken theater because the queen went.
The 18th and 19th centuries represented a golden age for the arts, thanks to a patronage system in which the nobility employed court composers. Rulers used the creation of art to compete with other nobility.
During the 19th century, perception shifted from the composer as craftsman to the composer as genius — take Beethoven, for example. The audience response changed from a participatory event to quiet respect.
“In the presence of the profound, you’re reverent,” Mabary said.
As American entertainment became more homegrown, centering on Broadway and Hollywood, opera fell from favor. That was especially true, Budds said, as “modern musical language” evolved around World War I.
“Every town in Europe the size of Columbia had an opera house,” Budds said. “It’s almost as if in America film satisfied the same need as opera. Marrying opera and the movies is a stroke of genius. More people go to art museums and opera than to sports events. There is a large number of American people who support that kind of thing.”
The Met hopes to reach that demographic and their children, building a new fan base for the future.
“The goal of the initiative is to reach a wide audience and to keep opera relevant in the popular culture,” Borchard-Young said. “What’s not lost on me is today’s movie houses were yesterday’s opera houses.”
Act II: A fortuitous meeting
In order to produce a Met in HD event, the Met has partnered with National CineMedia Fathom, which provides alternative entertainment content to theaters. NCM Fathom uses satellite technology to transmit the operas to more than 300 theaters across the country. Ten cameras are used at the Met, providing viewers with a variety of angles while not interfering with the experience of a visitor in the opera house.
“One of the great things about all of our events, if you go to the Met and buy a ticket at the back of the theater, that’s the perspective you get,” said Dan Diamond, vice president of NCM Fathom. With the high-definition transmissions, “You get to see angles that people can’t see that are at the performance. It’s right up close and personal. There’s not a bad seat in the house.”
Diamond and Borchard-Young said intermissions provide viewers with a unique opportunity to get backstage. During intermission, there are interviews with cast members, a peek at the mechanics of changing a set and a synopsis of what viewers can expect to see during the next act.
“It becomes, in essence, a way to part the veil,” Diamond said.
Though the days of court composers are no more, the Met is still striving to foster support for the art form and to nurture it. Borchard-Young said one of the Met’s goals is to encourage performing arts development across the country.
“We’re seeing co-promotions on a local level,” she said.
Bill Appleton, assistant director for public programming and education at the St. Louis Art Museum, said the Met series “gives us great opportunity to build community interest.”
The museum is presenting the HD series for the first time this year, and the program is being coupled with a recital series “The Art of the Song.” The first performer scheduled to visit, on Jan. 18, is soprano Christine Schafer, who portrays Gretel in the Met’s broadcast of “Hansel and Gretel.”
Appleton said the museum has been working closely with the Opera Theater of St. Louis to promote the cause of local arts and to spread the word about the Met series.
Appleton said public response to the event has been positive so far.
“One of our insider fans of the museum and of opera told me that last year, she went to one of the films and was crying during it,” Appleton said. “She had the opportunity during some of the close ups to be privy to the emotion ... To see them act so closely was an amazing epiphany for her, and I think that most people who have had that opportunity have felt that way, and I think that is why it’s such a popular program.”
Act III: A communal experience
Borchard-Young said one of the series’ achievements is that it brings people together.
“I’ve seen it myself, where patrons will watch an act and congregate in the foyer and really discuss” what they’ve just seen, Borchard-Young said. The events are “counteracting the tidal wave of home entertainment, bringing people together as a community.”
Diamond said the series provides a means to create community. He said events like the Met in HD represent “a collective, shared experience ... It’s experiencing it in a way that you can’t at any other place.”
Although these performances are available on PBS 60 days after airing and some will eventually be released on DVD, the movie theater setting adds a dimension to the performance.
“There’s the excitement, of course, in the moment that it’s live, which is extra excitement,” Appleton said, and then there’s “seeing it where you can really envelop yourself in the vision. Opera is something to be experienced in the round, in the large.”
For Diamond, he’s seen the effect the experience can have firsthand.
“Getting my 12-year-old son to watch the Metropolitan Opera on PBS is not going to happen,” Diamond said. But at the theater, “He sat through three-and-a-half hours of performance, and he thought it was really cool.”
A day after the 1948 broadcast, a prophetic Howard Taubman wrote in The New York Times that “It gave promise that in future seasons the whole nation, which now feels that it can claim the Metropolitan Opera as the country’s opera theater, might sit in on opening nights and other performances.”
Sixty years later, the Met is again striving to fulfill that bill. Gone are the fuzzy black-and-white screens: Say hello to high-definition.