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It wasn't your typical matinee movie crowd. These people were mostly much older than that -- and as they rode up the massive escalator on Saturday afternoon in Toronto's Paramount Theatre, they looked like they weren't quite sure where they were going.

But then this wasn't your typical matinee movie. This was the Metropolitan Opera, live from Lincoln Center in New York. Thanks to the wonders of instantaneous satellite transmission, 88 theatres in North America, including 28 in Canada, put Rocky, Borat and those dancing penguins back in the can for an afternoon and instead screened Mozart's Magic Flute.

The weekend's live, high-definition broadcast was the first of six that will take place in cinemas on Saturday afternoons between now and April 28. The second comes this Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET, with a satellite feed of Bellini's I Puritani (among the cast will be Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea).

According to Pat Marshall, vice-president of communications at Cineplex Entertainment -- the company that owns the theatres, from Quebec City to Victoria, that offer the Met simulcasts in Canada -- it was simply an idea whose time had come.

"We've been doing pay-per-view, live-via-satellite events for five years," she said. "And during this past year, we put an infrastructure in place that enables us to do high-definition digital presentations in the majority of our theatres. Advance ticket sales for the opera have done extremely well. We don't think of this as a risk -- we think of this as a new option."

The initiative, however, came from the Metropolitan Opera itself -- specifically, from the administration of the Met's recently appointed general manager, Peter Gelb. "I brought the idea to Peter," recalled Julie Borchard-Young, the Met's acting director of marketing, from her New York office, "and he embraced it wholeheartedly. The whole idea of this platform is to reach out to people who can't access the Met geographically, and also to an audience in our own backyard that we may not have seen before."

Outside North America, simulcasts took place in Britain, Norway, Denmark and Japan. Borchard estimated that about 40,000 people worldwide would be able to view the opera in cinemas.

Of course, this kind of thing is really nothing new for the Met: The company has a long history of making its presence felt beyond the confines of Manhattan. Before the Second World War, when it was almost the only professional opera company in North America, it toured the continent, with frequent appearances in Toronto and Montreal. And in 1940 the Met established an ongoing radio broadcast series that's still heard around the world, including in Canada on CBC Radio Two.

And so when the Met approached Cineplex, offering a package of six operas in the winter of 2007, a deal was struck -- and on Saturday, a capacity audience crowded into Cinema 1 at the Paramount for the first of them. What they got was a short commentary by Gelb, reassuring his global audience that "the big screen is where opera belongs," followed by an abbreviated, English-language version of Mozart's 1791 opera, in a stunning production by Julie Taymor (famous for directing Disney's Lion King). Throughout the simulcast, a 10-person camera crew in the theatre captured close-ups of the singers and long-shots of Taymor's phantasmagorical stage world. The format was familiar and comforting -- like a PBS special writ large.

This was the Met doing what it does best: mounting an elaborate, multimillion-dollar production of a popular opera, with maestro James Levine coaxing a burnished and velvety performance from his orchestra and top-notch cast. (Especially impressive was Mari Moriya's tour-de-force performance as the Queen of the Night.)

Yet there was something a bit strange about the event -- a feeling of being both very close to and yet at the same time very far away from what was happening on stage. Enlarging the theatrical experience in this way underscored subtleties -- small gestures and facial expressions -- that wouldn't even be visible from a front-row seat at the Met. Yet at the same time, the audience in Toronto couldn't quite decide if and when it was supposed to applaud for a performance taking place almost 800 kilometres away. But that problem will no doubt work itself out, if this idea catches on.

And based on Saturday's screening, there's every reason to think that it will. There were beatific smiles all round as the audience left the auditorium, with some patrons expressing the view that the simulcast was better than a live performance.

And this was no audience of operatic neophytes -- on the contrary, it was studded with familiar faces from Toronto's operatic subculture: battle-hardened folk who can be quick to judge and find fault.

But on this day they could not even be provoked. Did Bruce Blandford, a senior fundraiser at the Canadian Opera Company, see this innovation as a potential threat to the COC? No, he didn't. Did Dairine Ni Mheadhra, co-director of Toronto's plucky little Queen of Puddings opera company, see the screening as the first step in a homogeneous "McDonaldsization" of opera around the world? Not really. And Wayne Gooding, editor of Opera Canada magazine, happily declared the screenings "a good thing."

 

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