Met at the Movies

On Saturday I went to see the Met at the Movies, a live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera projected in high-definition in an Upstate New York movie theater. It was my first time watching opera in my jeans and sneakers, and I was extremely curious to see Franco Zeffirelli’s famous production of Puccini’s La Boheme.

Earlier in the week, when I’d gotten two tickets, I couldn’t find a date. Everyone was busy, and the one dyed-in-the-wool opera fan in my family, my dad, had to work. I tried to convince one of my kids to go.

“You mean,” echoed my nine-year old son in faint disbelief, “they sing the WHOLE TIME?!”

I went alone.

I’d heard that the theater would be packed, so I arrived in plenty of time, half an hour early, in order to get a good seat. Too late. The theater – one of three in the complex showing the opera – was already full, and companions were splitting up, scanning the room for single, empty seats. I walked to the front and settled in three rows from the screen, right in the middle. Few people, I guessed, wanted to be that close.

Glancing around in the semi-darkness, I realized I was one of the youngest people there. I saw a few faces I recognized, including Rochester Oratorio Society alto Katie McNally. Cellist Ingrid Bock sat over by the wall, composer Cary Ratcliff and his wife were high in the back, and long-time WXXI volunteer Delores Parlato waved with her husband Sal from their excellent aisle seats about halfway up. Apparently they’d arrived way before I did.

About seven minutes before the broadcast, recently-retired classical host Mordecai Lipshutz hurried to the front, sporting a dark blue suit and daffodil-colored tie. He knew his audience.

“You probably know a lot about Puccini’s La Boheme already,” he called out, hands clasped around his waist. “So, I’ll just welcome you and urge you to enjoy!”

I started chatting with an elderly man two seats away. He had long sideburns and no beard, like a 19th century Confederate general. He also had a cell phone. His name was Bill, and he told me he’d come with two friends from Geneva. They had to split up, so he was sitting alone. Bill asked me if this was my first time seeing La Boheme, and when I said no, he picked up his coat and moved over to the seat next to me. He told me that he heard his first opera when he was ten years old, hanging out with friends on his parents’ farm.

“We were all listening to this opera on a radio and making fun of it,” he said, “But secretly, I loved it. I’ve been hooked ever since.”

The Met broadcast began. Host Renee Fleming, looking a little like a glammed-up Katie Couric, introduced the opera and welcomed new movie audiences in France and on cruise ships worldwide. She deftly conducted behind-the-scenes interviews with the singers, the conductor, and Met staff members. We watched a few pre-produced highlights and a tribute to Franco Zeffirelli, who’d recreated a 19th century Paris so convincing I forgot I was watching a live opera happening in New York. It was that good.

But the most astonishing thing was the quality of the music, both from the performers and the technology that delivered them. The orchestra could not have sounded better if we’d been actually lying down in the pit. Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, who sang Mimì, produced a silky, unadorned sound, unlike Renee Fleming’s highly-textured voice. (Fleming didn’t sing in this production, but I’ve heard her before.) To my ears, Fleming is an English horn compared to Gheorghiu’s sweet, warm violin. The Romanian soprano’s Mimi wasn’t the wimpy waif singers usually portray: her version was coy, aware, and almost aggressive. Not an innocent.

By the middle of the third act act, as lovers Rodolfo and Mimi were breaking up, I was a quivering, gelatinous mass clutching a wet wad of blue tissues. Bill looked over at me, and in the dark I could tell he was crying, too.

During intermission, he got some popcorn to cheer us up. Dolores gave me a fresh stack of tissues from a mini-pack in her purse.

“You’ll need it for Act Four,” she warned.

I walked around during the second intermission. The floor was sticky. I hate that. Also, there weren’t enough bathrooms to accommodate the hundreds of older women lined up in the halls. I heard some ladies plotting to take over one of the men’s bathrooms. Despite two fifteen minute intermissions, people were scrambling for their seats.

Act Four unfolded with Mimì dying in the Rodolfo’s Parisian studio. Through our tears, Bill and I giggled at the close-up of the dead woman’s still-heaving bosom. It’s hard to fake death when your chest is enlarged to the size of a Ford pick-up.

But seriously, that’s the mystique of opera: everything is magnified a thousand times. You ache deeper, you cry harder, you love more.

I’d go again in a heartbeat.