In the wake of the Metropolitan Opera's very successful venture in transmitting its performances into movie theaters, as well as smaller-scale efforts by Milan's La Scala and England's Glyndebourne Opera Festival, San Francisco Opera is venturing into the world of cinema.
Yesterday the company announced that it has partnered with digital entertainment distributor The Bigger Picture to present six operas annually in high-definition video and audio on theater screens in the U.S. and abroad.
The San Francisco Opera series begins next March with Puccini's La rondine, in the production from earlier this fall that featured the San Francisco Opera debut of Angela Gheorghiu.
Among the other performances scheduled, all from the fall or summer 2007 season, are Puccini's Madama Butterfly, featuring Patricia Racette's acclaimed portrayal of the title role, and the world premiere production of Philip Glass's Appomattox. (A complete list of the works in the series is below.)
For this first year of the four-year program, each opera will be screened four times. So far 175 theaters in the U.S. are involved, with more to be added. The Bigger Picture's co-president, Jonathan Dern, told The San Francisco Chronicle, "I expect we will be in all 50 of the top 50 markets and a good portion of the top 100 markets."
The agreement includes international rights, though no information was released yesterday about screenings in Canada (where the Met's simulcasts are particularly popular) or overseas.
The digital recordings of the operas will be transmitted via satellite to venues equipped with top-quality equipment supplied by The Bigger Picture's parent company, Access Integrated Technologies Inc. (San Francisco Opera's release announcing the new venture points out that "other opera series ... are currently playing in theaters on projection systems designed for cinema advertising rather than feature movies.") AIT told The New York Times that it has installed its digital equipment in about 3,700 U.S. theaters, roughly 10% of all movie theaters in the country.
Whereas the Metropolitan Opera has been presenting live simulcasts of Saturday matinees, all of the San Francisco Opera presentations will be pre-recorded and edited using the Koret Media Suite facility which the company installed in the War Memorial Opera House this past spring. As the announcement from San Francisco Opera observes, this arrangement lets the company shoot and edit to Hollywood feature film standards; as the release does not point out, it will also enable the final transmission to be edited and compiled from more than a single performance.
About this difference, Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb told the Times that "Being live is at the heart of our approach because we're creating basically satellite opera houses. That's what makes this more than a canned experience."
San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley, speaking to the Chronicle, acknowledged that "we're concerned about how important the live aspect of opera is. But we decided to go in a different direction and do something post-produced that takes advantage of 12 cameras, as well as close-ups and reaction shots. This also allows you to fix things that might not have worked so well on the fly."
To obtain the rights to transmit the work of the company's performers and backstage staff — always a touchy issue — San Francisco Opera has negotiated a revenue-sharing agreement with the three unions involved: the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), American Federation of Musicians (AFM), and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). An upfront supplemental fee will be paid to union members for electronic media rights; subsequently, rather than calculating net profits on the movie-theater venture, all earned revenue will be split, with 20% going to the company to cover administrative and distribution costs and the remaining 80% divided evenly with union members, the conductor and the designers. With this arrangement, "it would be completely transparent what they would get, from Dollar 1," Gockley told the Times.
As for the idea of direct competition between the Metropolitan and San Francisco Operas for the nation's movie screens. Gockley pointed out that there's relatively little overlap in timing, with the Met's presentations running from December through May and San Francisco's running from March through November.
The locations of participating venues and the dates of transmissions will be announced later. Admission prices will be set by individual theaters, Dern told the Chronicle, though other media reports have indicated that tickets will likely be slightly less expensive than the $22 charged for the Met's series.
Gockley freely acknowledged the Met's role in blazing the opera-at-the-movies trail. "Before the Met did it, and did it so magnificently, I might have been doubtful," he told the Chronicle. "But seeing what they accomplished got us all revved up."
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San Francisco Opera's first season of high-definition presentations, running March to November 2008, will include the following (text provided by San Francisco Opera):
- Giacomo Puccini: La rondine
Acclaimed soprano Angela Gheorghiu stars as Magda de Civry in Puccini's rarely-performed gem. Tenor Misha Didyk is the naÇve young man (Ruggero) who falls in love with the worldly Magda in this Italian take on Viennese operetta. Soprano Anna Christy (Lisette), tenor Gerard Powers (Prunier) and bass-baritone Philip Skinner (Rambaldo) round out the cast. The stunning Art Deco-inspired production by Nicolas JoêŠl (from the Royal Opera, Covent Garden and the Th_ê¢tre du Capitole de Toulouse), with set design by Ezio Frigerio and costumes by Franca Squarciapino, is directed by Stephen Barlow. Ion Marin conducts.
[ Fall 2007 Season ]
- Camille Saint-SaêŠns: Samson et Dalila
Saint-SaêŠns's sweeping biblical epic stars mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina as Delilah and tenor Clifton Forbis as the Old Testament hero who loses his heart, his hair, and finally his strength. The cast also features bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo as The High Priest of Dagon, bass Oren Gradus in the role of An Old Hebrew and bass-baritone Eric Jordan as Abim_lech. Sandra Bernhard directs this lavish San Francisco Opera/Nicolas JoêŠl production featuring sets by Douglas Schmidt and costumes by Carrie Robbins. Patrick Summers conducts.
[ Fall 2007 Season ]
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Magic Flute
Mozart's beloved masterpiece is a playful, yet profound look at the human quest for love, wisdom, and virtue. San Francisco Opera Music Director Donald Runnicles conducts an enchanting cast headed by tenor Piotr Beczala (Tamino), soprano Dina Kuznetsova (Pamina), baritone Christopher Maltman (Papageno), soprano Erika Mikl‹sa (Queen of the Night), and bass Georg Zeppenfeld (Sarastro). Originally conceived by Sir Peter Hall and British artist Gerald Scarfe for Los Angeles Opera, Scarfe's sets and costumes were extensively refurbished for these San Francisco performances. The fanciful and visually inventive production, replete with a menagerie of fantastical creatures in a mystical land, is directed by Stanley Garner.
[ Fall 2007 Season ]
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni
Leading baritone Mariusz Kwiecien sings the sings the title role of Mozart's Don Juan setting in this innovative San Francisco Opera/Th_ê¢tre Royal de la Monnaie co-production conceived by director David McVicar and production designer John McFarlane. The cast also features sopranos Elza van den Heever (Donna Anna) and Twyla Robinson (Donna Elvira), mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke (Zerlina), tenor Charles Castronovo (Don Ottavio), basses Oren Gradus (Leporello) and Kristinn Sigmundsson (Commendatore), and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni (Masetto). San Francisco Opera Music Director Donald Runnicles conducts, and Leah Hausman directs.
[ Summer 2007 Season ]
- Philip Glass/Christopher Hampton: Appomattox
After four years and the loss of 600,000 lives, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to his Union counterpart Ulysses S. Grant in the town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia, bringing the Civil War to an end. Renowned American composer Philip Glass and Academy and Tony Award-winning librettist Christopher Hampton look back at a key moment in our nations history — and the social and political issues at its core which still reverberate today — in this new work commissioned and premiered by San Francisco Opera. Baritone Dwayne Croft (Robert E. Lee) and bass-baritone Andrew Shore (Ulysses S. Grant) lead a cast including Rhoslyn Jones, Elza van den Heever, Noah Stewart, Jeremy Galyon, Heidi Melton, Kendall Gladen, Philip Skinner, and Ji Young Yang. Long-time Glass collaborator and new music champion Dennis Russell Davies conducts. The productions award-winning creative team includes Robert Woodruff (director), Riccardo Hernandez (set design), Gabriel Berry (costume design) and Christopher Akerlind (lighting design).
[ Fall 2007 Season ]
- Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
This acclaimed San Francisco Opera production of Puccini's masterwork stars soprano Patricia Racette in her signature role as the tragic heroine Cio-Cio-San, opposite rising young tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton. Mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao is Cio-Cio-San's maid and confidante, Suzuki, and baritone Steven Powell is the American consul Sharpless. San Francisco Opera Music Director Donald Runnicles conducts. The production, created by Ron Daniels and designed by Michael Yeargan, is directed by Kathleen Belcher.
[ Fall 2007 Season ]