Opera star, Anna Netrebko, in “Anna Bolena.”

Opera star, Anna Netrebko, in “Anna Bolena.”

by Hugh Gilmore

Call this a diary, if you will, of one man’s attempts to find what’s been missing from his life where opera is concerned. Until recently, I’ve been walking around the cultural fairgrounds of life with little interest in what goes on inside that particular big tent.

Because opera is satirized or parodied so often in popular entertainment, I assumed that it was just a big, silly, overblown mess that was patronized by rich dowagers and gents in top hats. You know, those cartoonish captains of industry who have to be shushed when they start snoring during the second act. Opera was just something that fancy people attended to show they were fancier than the rest of us.

Oh, I’m not a complete ignoramus. I love classical music and prefer it to all other kinds. I went to the Metropolitan Opera once when I was in college because I loved the story of “La bohème” – starving young artists in a garret, doomed love, beautiful love songs. And I owned some Pavarotti albums. And just loved the movie “Bizet’s Carmen” (with Placido Domingo) enough to have watched it about 20 times in the past 10 years.

And no one gets through life without humming snatches of Wagner every now and then, even if he doesn’t know they’re from Wagner. But I really never did anything to deepen my knowledge of opera.

For one thing, live opera tickets are fairly expensive. Listening to the radio is free and pleasurable, but doesn’t give one the satisfaction of watching the singers perform or seeing the spectacular costumes and staging. As for televised operatic performances: the operatic universe simply cannot be crammed into a nutshell. Then, a few years ago, my excuses were taken away when the mountain came to me.

In 2006, Metropolitan Opera Live in HD began broadcasting selected live performances to local theaters. Sent by special satellite hookups, these simulcasts of their star-studded shows brought to the big screen the same (usually Saturday matinée) programs that out-of-town radio fans had been faithfully listening to for years.

Suddenly, folks from Maine to Oregon, Florida to California, and many places in between, could “go to the opera” on a Saturday afternoon. Some of them love opera enough to drive 50 or 100 miles to get to a theater. Others, city dwellers such as myself, need expend no more effort than a brief drive to a local movie theater. The closest theater to our Chestnut Hill community is the AMC Plymouth Meeting Mall Cinema 12, a mere 20 minutes away.

Tickets are pricey, compared to a regular movie, but plenty cheap compared to the expense of going to the Met in New York. They were around $16 a few years ago, but have risen; I paid $21 for the show I saw this past weekend – Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (The Troubadour).

Each year since the beginning, the Met has expanded its offerings. In the past several years they have averaged ten simulcasts, offered in more than 2,000 theaters in about 70 countries. Ticket sales have soared to more than $60 million on an average ticket cost of about $23. (Discounts are given for multiple event purchases.) For those who miss the Saturday afternoon transmissions, “encore” performances are offered, usually on the following Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.

Before going on, I must pause to be personal: In living my life, I have never been accused of rushing headlong toward maturity. I grew older but clung tenaciously to whatever might be called the opposite of wisdom. Now having passed what I imagine was the mid-point of my life, I have discovered pleasures I never knew existed. Simply by opening my mind and noticing that I didn’t know it all.

It’s as though every year I discover a beautiful garden on the other side of a wall I’d never peeked through, or walked around, or climbed over. In my eagerness to rush through my youth I missed the chance to enjoy a great deal. In short, I’ve been wrong more often than I’ve been right about what was worth spending time doing.

The upside of this newly bloomed awareness is that I’ve discovered so much new in the world. Not new to the world, just new to me. But that’s just as good. Each day takes on a special glow because of that.

Having these live simulcasts come to my neighborhood movie theater has made it easy for me to overcome my prejudices and start becoming an opera fan. I started going to these shows during the 2008-2009 season. I go to most of them each year. Usually alone. These experiences have provided the most intensely emotional artistic experiences I’ve felt in the past half-dozen years.

Opera, when it works, presents life at its aesthetic extremes. Not all the productions work for me, but the ones that do really work me over. When the curtain comes down and the characters on stage turn into smiling fellow humans, bowing before a wildly applauding audience, I feel exhilarated, overflowing with ideas for creative projects, insights into human nature, and love for all mankind. It’s a little late in the day, I guess, to take up a passionate new interest like this. But better than than never, eh?

More, with details, to follow as I offer some notes about this season.