Season to be cheerful

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 January, 2010, 12:00am

Their quality may be top drawer, but the number of opera productions staged in Hong Kong each year is modest, with little hope of the list reaching double digits any time soon. For fans who can't get enough of the art form, the next best thing to an evening of classical musical theatre is about to hit town when Hong Kong joins the list of centres around the world where opera lovers can experience The Met: Live in HD.

Organised by the Foundation for the Arts and Music in Asia and starting on Saturday, productions by the Metropolitan Opera in New York including Turandot, Tosca, Aida and Les Contes d'Hoffmann will be screened at the Academy for Performing Arts' Bethanie campus in Pok Fu Lam.

High-definition (HD) screenings of Met operas is the brainchild of Peter Gelb. The dynamic general manager of the company inherited its 75-year tradition of weekly radio broadcasts when he joined in 2006, but wanted to take its outreach activity to the next level.

Gelb realised his ambition that year by beaming HD, real-time screenings of live performances by satellite to cinemas around the US. The idea caught on and the enterprise now boasts more than a thousand venues in 42 countries where spectacular Met productions are enjoyed by devotees who may never otherwise see such lavish performances.

Central to the success are the high-resolution, digital images that promise to transport you to a front-row seat at the Met itself, with larger-than-life visuals making opera glasses a thing of the past.

When Hong Kong-based US-born businessman Laurence Scofield saw his first Met screening at a Florida cinema in May last year, he knew he had to open a door to afford people in this city the same opportunity. A resident for more than 30 years, he's promoting The Met: Live in HD via his Foundation for the Arts and Music in Asia, which has particular concern for education and music appreciation.

'Our family has always been a supporter of the arts,' Scofield says. 'But it was always done in a sort of ad hoc way and creating the foundation puts it on a more formal, and more structured basis.

'In bringing The Met: Live in HD to Hong Kong, we hope to give people an idea of what fantastic singing and fantastic productions are like; to turn more people on to what a great experience that can be.'

Venues that accommodate large audiences can receive real-time or delayed satellite screenings, depending on their location around the world. Smaller venues enjoy tapes that are financially friendly, but still reproduce the HD impact. Scofield is presenting Hong Kong's first season of Met operas in association with the academy at its Bethanie campus, home to its film school. Its 150-seater Wellcome Theatre is one of the few places in the city that is already equipped to handle HD, but its screen turned out to be unsuitably proportioned.

'We've started the season late because the Wellcome Theatre's screen was too small, so the foundation provided a grant to buy a custom-made screen which was made in the US and then shipped out to Hong Kong,' Scofield says.

Saturday's showing of Puccini's Turandot will be an invitation-only affair to raise funds to support voice students at the academy, following which nine productions can be seen by the public between February and June, including Verdi's Aida, Bizet's Carmen and Puccini's Tosca, sporting some of the world's leading singers, conductors and producers: Renee Fleming, James Levine and Franco Zeffirelli are just three such names to whet the appetite.

While The Met: Live in HD has a visual wow factor, it still requires people to get to a cinema and submit to the selection of operas made by the broadcaster. A parallel development bound to please opera fans is that the next generation of digital television sets on the horizon will come complete with internet connections, bypassing the desktop platform for receiving video services.

Klaus Heymann, founding chairman of the Naxos recording label and creator of the online Naxos Music Library, is anticipating this step by producing an online video library that will make more than 150 opera performances available on a subscription basis when it launches later this month. Ballets, concerts and documentaries are also on offer.

'It's more comfortable to sit at home, invite in some friends, bring a few bottles of wine for a fraction of what it would cost to go to the opera, park the car, pay the babysitter,' Heymann says.

'It's only a matter of bandwidth. As more broadband becomes cheaper and cheaper we can broadcast into the home any performance anywhere in the world, live.'

Will a night out at the opera with its atmospheric buzz, social interaction and the freedom to plant your eyes and ears on whichever part of the action you choose, not the director, become extinct?

Home-screened videos threatened to wipe out cinemas, but they didn't. E-books look set to endanger paper editions, but many aren't persuaded. So, better think twice before throwing away those opera glasses.

The Met: Live in HD, from Feb 3, HK$160. Inquiries: 2880 9555