Tan Dun’s new opera, “The First Emperor,” which premiered in December at the Metropolitan Opera and included Placido Domingo in the title role, was a complete sell-out for its run. The Met’s new GM, Peter Gelb, created a unique opportunity to expand the audience, by telecasting the WQXR “Live from the Met” broadcast in cities around the country. As one shut out from the in-house production, I decided to experience it remotely.
It started with ordering the tickets by a visit to the Met’s online web site. A couple of clicks brought up the in-theater information. A couple of more clicks and I had reserved two tickets for the January 13th airing at the Regal New Rochelle cinema. It was strange to have tickets, but no reserved seats, and at $16 apiece, a lot less expensive than anything but standing room rates inside the Met.
Performance day was a 25 minute drive from home and parking for $5 just a couple of hundred feet from the movie theater entrance … a stark contrast with a train ride into Grand Central and a long walk to Lincoln Center. A flash of my credit card and two minutes later we walked into Theater #16.
Arriving at 1 pm we found more than a third of the seats already taken – with bags and coats and packages spread over neighboring seats to indicate they had already been reserved. A lot of folks were wandering up and down the aisles, trying to decide where the best remaining seats might be. This would have been an exhausting and not allowed activity at the Met – climbing through the tiers.
On the screen was a live camera feed from the Met, offering alternatively a view from the stage into the house and orchestra pit, and a view from the orchestra seat level at the stage decorations and scrim. But until five minutes before the opera’s start, the sound system played the standard movie theater promotions and radio ads – disconcerting to hear country and western music, pop idol quizzes and pitches for popcorn, while looking at Chinese characters and instruments on the stage.
Along with the filing-in audience – a mixture of ages from kids to grandparents – came trays of food, buckets of popcorn, cups of soda, secreted-in brown bag lunches. Our opera house #16 smelled like the movie lobby. At the Met, they worry about the crinkling of lozenge wrappers.
As the house lights dimmed, theater #16 became opera-like quiet. The opera started and the camera work was well done. The staging, costumes, the wonderful singing of the cast which included Ms. Furtal and De Young, Placido and the entire cast was clearly and well broadcast. Occasionally, a glimpse of Tan Dun conducting brought the opera up close and very personal. The sound system worked well and the audience was absolutely still.
When the curtain fell on Act 1 there was a smattering of applause from the theater audience. We were greeted at intermission by Beverly Sills who hosted an array of clips and live interviews backstage and even onstage. Less than 10% of the attendees stirred. Only when a ten minute warning flashed on the screen did the audience break for the restrooms and concession stands or stand, stretch, and chat with friends and neighbors. There was much agreement that this was a delightful and unexpected experience. Interestingly, there was little discussion of the singing; much more was on the staging and the camera work.
Act 2 was equally well executed and very few of the audience left early. Applause – natural applause – rippled through the performance at the appropriate places and then swelled for the curtain calls. The theater emptied only after the credits stopped rolling and the screen went dark.
While my shoes never stuck to the floor when leaving The Met at Lincoln Center, Theater #16 presented a rewarding, economical alternative way to see and hear a fine opera.