A night at the MET — in Hamburg!

Yesterday, in a Skype conversation, I told a friend I was going to see Traviata in the Met. He was quite taken aback. “You are in New York??” You see, I live in Hamburg, Germany. “Well, sort of,” I told him. And when the evening came we took public transportation to the Met performance, gathered together with 450,000 other visitors and enjoyed an evening of classical opera.

It was really lovely. We had front row seats and could see the singers at very close range. The main role, Violetta, was sung by German soprano Diana Damrau. She is not just a great singer but a nuanced actress who gave a very moving performance. I normally go to the opera for the music, ignoring the often quite dated story line. But in this case the final scene had me close to tears. It was extremely well staged and played.

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So how did I get to see this magnificent performance, with so many other visitors? Because the Met, like the Royal Opera in London, has special performances that are broadcast live and in HD to hundreds of movie theatres in 70 different countries.

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There are six movie theatres that periodically offer live opera in HD in our region alone.

The performance, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin from Canada conducting, starred Damrau, Juan Diego Flórez, tenor from Peru, and American baritone Quinn Kelsey, who all got huge applause in the end. Even people in the movie theatre clapped. So it was an electrifying evening.

On the bus ride back home — fifteen minutes, late at night — I discussed with Ingrid how it stood up to actually visiting the opera in New York or London. She said the acoustics are better in the original opera houses, and the atmosphere of seeing the singers live on the stage cannot be matched. But: the sound in the movie theatre was not really bad, and seeing the actors at close range, being able to see every nuance of Violetta’s facial expression — without opera glasses! — that compensated for not actually being in the real Metropolitan (or the Royal Opera).

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This is what the Met looks like, in New York — this is where Loretta Castorini meets Ronny Cammareri in Moonstruck.

Another thing to consider: if the sound was not absolutely perfect, that is a problem for the current broadcasts. I assured Ingrid that in a couple of years we would have eight or sixteen channel sound in the highest fidelity, easily competing with the live opera visit. And the video quality would migrate from currently HD to 4K or even 8K, with better and larger screens. And then some day Virtual Reality…

Here’s a one-minute clip of the December 15 performance we enjoyed. Maximize the screen and use headphones to get an impression of what it was like.

Another thing Met in the Movies offers: live interviews with the singers, the director and the conductor during the intervals. You can even see the workers preparing the stage for the next scene. That is not available when you are live in the opera house.

The above was pre-recorded. During the performance there were live interviews. In one case Alfredo and Violetta are lying on a bed in the background and wave to the camera. Thirty seconds later they are singing.

Finally: the cinema opera tickets are slightly pricey — we paid €30 per seat. That’s three times more than regular movie tickets. But: compared to flying to one of the great opera houses, finding accommodation in the cities, and buying tickets (months in advance) for the performance there, the Met in the Movies prices are close to zero. You can go once a month — or sell your car, mortgage your house and do the same in New York and London.

There is one thing I need to mention: La Traviata is all about Violetta, who sings, I believe, more than 50% of the piece. And Diana Damrau did it with virtuosity, perfect voice control and acting. The Big Aria is of course Sempre libera, which ends with a dazzling high E-flat. Verdi did not include this in his original version, and many singers, like Damrau, follow his score. But a number bring the house down with the dazzling E-flat. Callas, Cotrubas, Sumi Jo, Netrebko, Sutherland and others do or did it — here’s a collection to choose from. My very favourite E strano/Sempre libera performer is Lee Myung-Joo who sings the whole aria with absolute perfection. Don’t miss it — I watch this video on average once every three months.

Try it out: here’s what’s in store for you — just find a participating movie theatre near your home.

Other pieces by Frederic Friedel on music

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Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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