The Met gets a virtual outlet 

Opera for the Rest of Us

For well over half a century now, we've been able to catch live radio broadcasts from New York's renowned Metropolitan Opera. But a recent high-tech update of that process has become the buzz of the opera world — and it could well turn out to be one of the saving graces of an allegedly arcane art form that Peter Gelb, the Met's general director since August 2006, sees as increasingly "irrelevant" in a rapidly changing society.

Part of his revolutionary strategy to "bring opera to the people" again is the Met's new series of live, high-definition video simulcasts of selected Saturday matinee performances via satellite to movie theaters all over the world. After last season's very successful launch, the program's been expanded to more than 600 theaters worldwide — and one public library here in Charleston.

Any participating theater will charge you at least $22 — but the same broadcasts can be seen for free at the Charleston County Library on Calhoun Street, probably the only place on earth where these state-of-the-art multimedia broadcasts won't cost you.

Mayor Joe Riley and his Office of Cultural Affairs thought such news worthy of a press conference last Thursday, but maybe Gelb's claim of operatic irrelevance is on the money, 'cause the local media stayed away in droves — save for yours truly.

But as he pointed out, there's no better place to offer such a service than in the city that hosts Spoleto Festival USA — which brings us some of America's best and most adventurous opera every spring. The festival's 30 years in Charleston have inspired the creation of such year-round institutions as a first-rate symphony orchestra and several top-notch chamber music groups ... so why not also embrace the next-best thing to real live opera?

And Sara Breibart, the library's adult program director, has done this effort up right, with lots of help from her tech-savvy colleagues and her support organization: the Friends of the Library. That worthy outfit put up the bucks needed to acquire the high-def satellite reception, digital projection, and surround-sound equipment that these broadcasts require.

On top of that, each broadcast costs a cool $2,500.

The City picked up the tab for last Saturday's first broadcast, but fresh patrons will be needed to help pay for future broadcasts — and there are seven more choice offerings scheduled through April of next year. Check out all of the tempting titles at www.ccpl.org.

Then, if you love opera, ante up. If you were there Saturday, you know why you must.

It was a real winner: French composer Charles Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, a lesser-known piece that we heard here two Spoletos back. No room here for a detailed review, but operatic superstars du jour Anna Netrebko (soprano, Juliette), Roberto Alagna (tenor, Romeo), and Nathan Gunn (baritone, Mercutio) led an otherwise starry cast that delivered the goods in spades. Let's not forget the operatically astute conductor (and beloved tenor) Plácido Domingo leading the fabulous Met orchestra. Oh, and then there's the world-class staging, props, costumes, lighting, videography, etc.

The overall effect was uncanny: the blend of high-def video and sound seduced and deceived us all. We found ourselves clapping and cheering after beloved arias as if we were really there. It all added up to a supremely classy and memorable affair. The only improvement I'd ask for is a bigger screen.

Fair warning: the library's viewing room seats only 200 — and the place was jam-packed on Saturday; lots of folks were turned away. Start times vary, so check 'em out online or call (843) 805-6930. Then show up very early for any hope of a seat. If you can't get in, try Summerville's Azalea Square theater: the only other nearby commercial venue that has the cultural couth to present such a milestone series.

Never fear — your $22 will be very well-spent.


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