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January 11, 2008

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A Semester Of Opera At The SCA

By Diane Krieger

Students had great seats last month for a performance of Roméo et Juliette.
Thanks to high-definition digital film, THX sound and the generosity of Met general manager Peter Gelb, the Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre miraculously was transformed into front-row seats to hear Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna – two of the opera-world’s brightest stars – sing their hearts out in a live production of breathtaking beauty, with maestro Plácido Domingo in the pit.

The Norris was one of 477 screens in the United States – and a hundred more overseas – to host the Met HD broadcast of Roméo et Juliette Dec. 15. But unlike the others, admission at USC was free. At commercial venues like the Bridge in West Los Angeles and the AMC 16 in Burbank, tickets ran $22 a piece and were quick to sell out.

“In our case, we’re getting the transmission free and passing it on for free,” said Alan Baker, assistant dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Even better, the USC broadcast featured cutting-edge technology not found in commercial theatres: namely, a SRXD 4K digital projector – four times the resolution of today’s high-definition televisions.

“Our projection system is probably one of the best in the country,” Baker said. (The Norris is the test bed for ongoing studies by USC’s Entertainment Technology Center, which collaborates with a handful of movie studios to develop industry standards for digital cinema.)

The USC venue also has 5.1 channel surround sound. But unlike commercial theatres equipped with the same technology, the
The USC broadcast featured cutting-edge technology not found in commercial theatres: namely, a SRXD 4K digital projector.
Norris is routinely checked and tweaked by USC cinema professor Tomlinson Holman, inventor of the THX standard and next-generation 10.2 surround sound.

The Metropolitan Opera series comes to USC through the goodwill of Gelb, a friend of the school and a Trojan parent. The only expense to the university is the satellite feed and equipment setup, which Baker estimated at less than $10,000 for the six-opera series. The Visions and Voices program is helping to foot that bill, he noted.

The next Met performance – Verdi’s Macbeth, conducted by James Levine – takes place Saturday, January 12 at 10:30 a.m.

The remaining HD broadcasts are:
• Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, on Saturday, Feb. 16
• Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, on Saturday, March 22
• Puccini’s La Bohème, on Saturday, April 5
• Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, on Saturday, April 26

For the April 5 broadcast, USC Thornton School of Music associate professor Elizabeth Hynes is organizing a pre-screening discussion with fellow vocal arts faculty and L.A. Opera soloists as the reflective component to a formal Visions and Voices event.

The Met introduced its HD broadcast series in December 2006 with Mozart’s Magic Flute. An instant success, the performance reached 30,000 people in approximately 100 theatres worldwide. Last month’s Roméo et Juliette set a new milestone for Met broadcasts, reaching nearly 100,000 fans.

The first Met broadcast at USC received little publicity yet drew a respectable crowd of 200 spectators (despite falling smack in the middle of finals week). As word gets out, Baker expects future Met broadcasts to fill the Norris to its 365-seat capacity. “We’re hoping they’ll mostly be students,” he said of future audiences. But for the present, the reservation system
is open to everyone.