Richard Nixon is watching ballet in Beijing with Chairman Mao as wife Pat Nixon looks on with her hands clasped to her face. A young girl is beaten unconscious as the crowd sings, "Whip her to death!" and all around, dancers twirl to the beat.
It's not 1972, it's not China, and the dancers have been choreographed by Mark Morris. This is the Metropolitan Opera's HD film of the John Adams opera, "Nixon in China," and even if you've never been to Lincoln Center before, you can experience the full show in its entirety at one of more than a thousand movie theaters across the U.S.
The Met has been broadcasting its performances to theaters since 2006, an initiative designed to draw a new audience to the opera house and dispel the public notion that opera is too highbrow for most people.
The Met's 2011 Summer HD Festival, which begins Monday evening at 8:30 in Lincoln Center with a screening of "Iphigénie en Tauride, will show 8 operas (originally ten, but Saturday and Sunday's screenings were cancelled due to Hurricane Irene), in an event that drew thousands last year. The audience, ranging from old devotees to new initiates, parks out in front of the Met where a giant screen plays the opera of the evening.
"It's a real social communal event and it sort of defies the modern trend of individual entertainment," Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera told The Huffington Post.
While opera, much like other theatrical performances, is known as an art best experienced live, the Met's broadcasts are trying to translate the power of watching the world's best singers belt out their high C's on extravagant sets into film. For opera devotees and curious newcomers, who might not live in NYC, or might not have the money to pay for a ticket, it's a remarkably satisfying alternative.
"The model for me is sports, really," said Gelb. "Sports teams have demonstrated that by maintaining a relationship with their fans with the Internet, through radio, etc. Instead of being satisfied they want the real thing all the more."
The singers on the stage are treated cinematically, captured in close-ups that telegraph the emotion of their characters as they trill out their arias. Wide shots help the moviegoers see the full splendor of the set and understand the action as it plays out on stage. Subtitles are a must. So is the sound of crowd response, mixed so that any old cinema can have its turn as a mini Lincoln Center.
The Met's initiative has its share of naysayers, who argue that filming opera puts too much emphasis on stars that look the part, while making it less crucial for singers to build the vocal strength required for filling a house with sound. Some fear that the rise in filmed performances may change the way that operas themselves are staged and cast.
“It’s about the live experience of singing people on the stage,” French opera director Gerard Mortier said, according to The New York Times. “Orfeo went himself to the underworld to sing. He didn’t send his videocassette.”
Still, that hasn't stopped the Met from working with Fathom Events to spread its gospel across the country to local institutions that might not otherwise get to see these performances. Part of the appeal is the dressed-down form of opera that the films provide.
"It's not as imposing, not as highbrow, [as going to the Met]. You don't spend the day getting all dressed up," said Fathom VP Dan Diamond of what draws fans to the movies.
But, especially for those broadcasts that are streamed concurrently with the performances themselves, many of the hallmarks of a live opera remain intact. A particularly well-done aria may earn whoops, whistles and a few calls of, "Bravo!" from the crowd, just as it would at Lincoln Center.
"Literally, fans stand up in theaters and give standing ovations like they were there," said Diamond.
To compensate for the portions that don't translate, Fathom and the Met have designed a sort of in-flight entertainment component for the filmed operas. During the 15-minute intermissions that usually punctuate an opera, the films show off interviews with stars, tours of the backstage, and explanations of what's going on dramatically and musically in the chosen opera.
The films benefit from being screened at movie theaters, which enforce quiet, as well as bestow a sense of ceremony upon the proceedings. On the big screen, the audience has a view just as good as anyone sitting in the third row of the orchestra -- better, even, considering that the camera can go places people cannot. The enthusiasm of the recorded crowd amps up the excitement in the movie theater, making for a viewing that feels less canned than you might expect.
It's been a profitable endeavor for the Met, which netted 11 million in revenue last year from the broadcasts. More and more organizations -- including the LA Philharmonic, the Royal Opera House, and La Scala in Milan -- are following its example by broadcasting their own performances.
Starting tonight at Lincoln Center, fans can enjoy the last nights of summer perched in front of the theater as Placido Domingo and Susan Graham star in Christoph Willibald Gluck’s 18th century French take on Greek myth in “Iphigenie en Tauride.” It's a free screening of a performance filmed at the Met, now projected onto the outside facade of the Met.
“It's this natural outdoor theater,” said Gelb. “With the walls being the philharmonic hall on one side and the Met at the other end."
"Nixon in China" will play Wednesday at Lincoln Center at 7:45 PM as a part of the Met's HD Festival.
Watch a clip from "Nixon in China" below: