Opera and technology: Metropolitan by the Bay 

What were all those people doing Saturday morning, standing in line at the box office of an Emeryville multiplex? They were plunking down $18 a head to watch the world-premiere production of Tan Dun’s opera, "The First Emperor," in a high-definition simulcast from New York, with Placido Domingo in the title role.

This was the first time the UA Emery Bay 10 has offered a live opera cast, and yet it had to open another theater because the scheduled one was filled to the rafters long before the 10:30 a.m. show. Visually and acoustically superb, the simulcast was a great success, and plenty of popcorn was sold as opera lovers’ usual intermission munchies (champagne? caviar?) were unavailable.

In San Francisco, Opera boss David Gockley introduced televised simulcasts from the War Memorial last year. Thousands have flocked to Civic Center Plaza, and free outdoor telecasts of Puccini’s "Madama Butterfly" and Verdi’s "Rigoletto."

Peter Gelb, new general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, has an ever bigger game going to spread the gospel of opera. His high-definition simulcasts from New York are beamed to hundreds of movie theaters in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Gelb has also added broadcasts over the Internet and on digital radio. All this is in addition to the decades-long tradition of live broadcasts Saturday mornings, and telecasts on the public television.

The Met movie project is only a month old, and theaters are being added on the fly. Until last weekend, the closest theater to San Francisco was in Dublin. Now, it’s just across the Bay Bridge, and soon theaters in the city and on the Peninsula are expected to sign up. Information is at www.metoperafamily.org.

The next movie theater simulcast is Tchaikovsky’s "Eugene Onegin" on Feb. 24, with Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky and conducted by Valery Gergiev. Following that will be Rossini’s "The Barber of Seville," on March 24, with Merola alumni Joyce DiDonato and John Relyea, Juan Diego Florez and Peter Mattei.

Even with only three simulcasts so far, attendance has been hot and heavy. The campaign is paying off for the mother ship as well: ticket sales are way up at the Met, all nine "First Emperor" performances are sold out.

The most successful simulcast program so far was Mozart’s "The Magic Flute" in an abbreviated, English-language production, directed by Julie ("Lion King") Taymor, just the ticket for veteran opera fans, neophytes, children — everybody. In fact, "The Magic Flute" will be shown at participating theaters in an encore (taped) presentation on Jan. 23.

Commercial-free public television telecasts of the Mozart opera are due on KQED, Channel. 9, on Jan. 24 (10 p.m.), repeated on Jan. 28 (noon). All Saturday morning Met matinees are broadcast on radio, locally on KUSF-FM, 90.3, and via the Internet at www.operainfo.org.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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