Metropolitan Opera in HD is a grand show

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GREAT BARRINGTON — After a handsy confrontation with Baron Scarpia (Zeljko Lucic) during Act 2 of the Metropolitan Opera's Jan. 27 production of "Tosca," Sonya Yoncheva, playing Floria Tosca, bore red marks on one of her hands. From the comfort of folding chairs just over 100 miles away, a crowd in Great Barrington could see the flesh wounds. A gathering on Wednesday could also discern them. How was this possible?

Technology is, of course, the main reason. The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center is among the venues in Berkshire County where opera fans can take in the Metropolitan Opera's New York City shows live in HD, a phenomenon that began in 2007. The acclaimed opera house now transmits about 10 productions per year to venues in more than 70 countries (and six continents) around the world, including nearly 800 sites in the U.S. At the Mahaiwe (the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown and Pittsfield's Beacon Cinema also screen the performances regularly), audience members have assigned seats for both live and encore showings on an 11-foot-by-24-foot screen. In addition to interviews with cast members during intermissions and other behind-the-curtain scenes, audience members get to see the action onstage in vivid detail. They may actually have a better view than those who are sitting in the famous Upper West Side opera house.

"If you're used to seeing opera, even at the Metropolitan Opera, live, you'll never get the kind of close-up angle there that you can get here," Beryl Jolly, Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center executive director, said before the encore of Giacomo Puccini's renowned opera on Wednesday.

Scott Eyerly, who teaches at The Juilliard School and has led pre-show lectures at the Mahaiwe since it first began presenting the broadcasts, also speaks highly of the HD productions.

"I very often will watch a performance at the Met on a Tuesday and then, 10 days later, I watch it in HD in the Mahaiwe on Saturday afternoon, and they're both fabulous experiences. There is much to be said for the HD," he said when reached by phone.

At Wednesday's encore, some of the spectators agreed.

"It's really like going to opera in the opera house," Malcolm Brown of Sharon, Conn., said during the first intermission. Brown shares season's tickets to the Metropolitan Opera House with friends, but regularly visits the Mahaiwe for the Met's HD productions.

"You get all the nuances of the dialogue," Brown said.

The physical toll of opera on its performers is also impressive on the screen.

"We generally sit in the fifth row, so I can see the sweat on the brow," Stockbridge resident Patty Ellis said of her and her husband, Joel, before navigating to a third-row aisle seat for this presentation.

The passion of opera fans is another reason that the Mahaiwe can foster a remote, but intimate experience. Live shows have packed the 650-seat theater in the past; Jolly said the Mahaiwe is averaging between 400 and 500 tickets sold per title (i.e., the live and encore events combined). Most audience members hail from Berkshire County, but Northampton, northwestern Connecticut and Columbia County also have plenty of representatives in attendance, according to Jolly.

It's a tight-knit bunch. The Castle Street Cafe is a popular gathering spot during live broadcasts' intermissions. Many of these audience members have visited the Met and opera houses around the world, including Great Barrington resident Regina Wenzek, who mentioned attending operas in Eastern Europe on Wednesday.

Though Wenzek enjoys the Mahaiwe screenings, "there's a certain amount of vibration" in the opera house that can't be replicated in an HD show, she said.

When she was abroad, Wenzek noticed that there were a fair amount of young people at operas. She hasn't seen that in the U.S. At the Mahaiwe, the crowd certainly skews older. The organization has aimed outreach initiatives at local schools and promotes $10 21-and under-tickets to try to attract a younger audience.

For those who don't know anything about opera, the HD broadcasts can provide an entry point (subtitles!) without a hefty price tag.

"There is nothing like opera. There is nothing in the world like opera. And I love other art forms, too. I love drama. I love ballet. I love concert music, and so on. I'm not trying to pretend that opera is necessarily superior to any art form. In fact, I would not say any art form is superior to another, but there's nothing like opera," said Eyerly, who hasn't missed a live Mahaiwe broadcast yet. ("Please, God, I hope I never do," he said of the prospect.)

What does opera entail, exactly?

"You have so many levels. You have the story, the music, the singing, the costumes, the sets, the orchestra, the history, the language, the background, the setting, the time period. ... There's an appeal of beauty in the music itself. There's an appeal of drama in the story, the confrontation, the situations of the story. There's an athletic aspect. Singing is very difficult. In some operas, the difficulty is incredible dexterity. In other operas, it might be sustaining a high note. In other operas, it might be competing with a large orchestra. The men and the women who perform in operas, they're like Olympic gold medalists. They're the very best of the best, particularly when you're getting a broadcast from one of the two or three top opera houses of the world in the Metropolitan Opera," Eyerly said.

His lectures bring many regulars to the venue 90 minutes before curtain. He tries to craft talks that appeal to both opera novices and veterans.

"I reach out to a dual audience. I take the view that anybody walking in need not know anything about opera nor about the opera that particular day. But at the same time, I know that many people in the audience are great opera lovers and want to get information that they don't already know. Although it's tricky, I think — I hope — my lectures accomplish that. A lot of it is just very, very quick definitions. If a person doesn't know what recitative is, I can describe that in six words. It goes by in three seconds, so if there's another person in the same row who already knows what recitative is, it's not that irritating," said Eyerly, whose talks are available in podcast form on the Mahaiwe's website.

In recent years, the Mahaiwe also presents London National Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet performances in HD. For multiple reasons, those events don't draw as well as the Met, which announced its 2018-2019 "Live in HD" season on Thursday. Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida" will kick off the 10-show season Oct. 6, undoubtedly drawing hundreds more to the Great Barrington institution to view the production with a magnified lens.

"Opera's such a grand art form," Jolly said, "so people really love seeing the whole scope of it."

If you go ...

What: ENCORE of Met Opera Live in HD: Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore"

When: Noon Sunday, Feb. 18

Where: The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington

Tickets: $25 adults; $10 21 and under

Information: 413-528-0100; mahaiwe.org

If you go ...

What: Met Opera Live in HD: Puccini's "La Boh me"

When: 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24

Where: The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington

Tickets: $25 adults; $10 21 and under

Information: 413-528-0100; mahaiwe.org

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.

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