- A Note from the Guest Editors
The conductor enters the pit, the lights go down, and an expectant hush descends over the auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera as the overture begins. But I'm not at the Met or even in New York; I'm in Screen 3 of my local movie theater, cradled by the same plush seat I recently occupied for the latest Star Wars installment. Welcome to The Met: Live in HD, a twenty-first-century phenomenon that is transforming the way we experience opera—or so we're told.
Launched in 2006 with Julie Taymor's production of The Magic Flute, the series seemed to catch the public imagination, with the result that the initially limited network of movie theaters grew rapidly, as did the number of productions broadcast. Now, ten times a year, the Met broadcasts a Saturday matinee performance live via satellite to approximately 2,000 cinemas worldwide. It's a model at once rooted in tradition (the Met has been broadcasting Saturday matinees on radio since the 1930s) and beholden to new technology (only the conversion of cinemas worldwide to digital projection made live video transmission possible). In Europe, the 1pm New York matinee becomes, thanks to the time difference, a traditional evening performance; for audiences on the U.S. west coast, it means a 10am performance.
These temporal disjunctions were always a feature of the Saturday Afternoon at the Met radio broadcasts, but, whereas radio reached its audience in domestic surroundings, The Met: Live in HD asks its audience to go out to the movie theater. In Europe this means that La bohème will compete side-by-side with the latest blockbusters on the night for going to the movies; for audiences in San Francisco it means embracing what one blogger dubbed a "morning at the opera."
Strange times and strange places for opera, then. Yet audiences seem undaunted, their feedback (see Joseph Attard's article in this volume) suggesting that they value the proximity of the movie theater and the comfort of the surroundings, even if the impact of mediatization (the possibility of closeups, the rendering of the music as surround sound) generates a mixed response. While some thrill at their favorite productions and stars receiving the Hollywood treatment, others bemoan unflattering shots of Jonas Kaufmann's tonsils and pedestrian behind-the-scenes footage in the intermissions. Still, the expansion of the network of movie theaters and initial growth in attendance figures—reinforced by the kind of media attention [End Page 261] that the Met, or any opera company, typically only attracts via scandal—were enough to prompt Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Met, to express concern the Met might be "cannibalizing" its own live audience.1
Imitators quickly followed, apparently unconcerned about such first-world problems and keen to tap into what seemed like a solution to the well-known problem of greying audiences. Other opera companies (the Royal Opera House, the Opéra de Paris) launched their own cinecast series, while other art forms recognized a similar potential to develop their own audiences (Bolshoi Ballet Live, Royal Shakespeare Company Live, and so on). Any perusal of the "event cinema" offerings of a local movie theater will confirm that this phenomenon, now into its second decade, has established a foothold in cinema scheduling and can no longer be reasonably regarded as experimental or dismissed as flash-in-the-pan.2
In one sense merely an adaptation of the technology of television and home video, these cinecasts also arguably represent something more far-reaching: the emergence and consolidation of a new hybrid cultural form situated somewhere between opera, television, and cinema. That this hybrid form recasts and reframes opera's inherent intermediality in light of new technologies and new forms of consumption surely demands the attention of opera studies. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, the field has been slow to respond. Two studies by James Steichen—one a sketch the Met's choreographed self-representation, the other an acutely observed critical response to the phenomenon—posed some important questions, while Sam O'Connell has addressed the potential and limits of cinecasts...