Opera and HD: Making Beautiful Music

Shortly after Peter Gelb became general manager of the New York City Metropolitan Opera in August 2006, Met marketing director Julie Borchard-Young approached him with a groundbreaking idea that's now making television history.
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NEW YORK


(click thumbnail)The Metropolitan Opera launched its HD theater presentations with "The Magic Flute" on Dec. 30.Shortly after Peter Gelb became general manager of the New York City Metropolitan Opera in August 2006, Met marketing director Julie Borchard-Young approached him with a groundbreaking idea that's now making television history.

Gelb was accustomed to shaking things up. The son of former New York Times Managing Editor Arthur Gelb, he had already transcended traditional boundaries as the publicity director for the Boston Symphony and later as the

worldwide head of Sony Classical Records. Under his guidance at Sony, Yo-Yo Ma recorded country music and classical singer Charlotte Church entered pop music.

These ventures were a prelude to where Gelb has now taken the Met.

SATURDAY AT THE MET

From December 2006 through April 2007, “Metropolitan Opera: Live in HD” is broadcasting performances in real time on six Saturday afternoons to select theaters worldwide (including one theater in Tromso, Norway, just south of the Arctic Circle). All of the theaters are equipped with satellite-based digital high-definition projection systems.

The primary U.S. distributor is National CineMedia network, a joint venture of AMC, Cinemark and Regal Entertainment Group (Regal Cinemas, United Artists and Edwards). Encores are shown at all of the theaters, which are edited for broadcast over-the-air on local PBS stations.

The number of participating theaters has increased incrementally: 56 theaters on Dec. 30 presented a live performance of “The Magic Flute” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; 87 theaters on Jan. 6 presented “I Puritani” by Vincenzo Bellini; 111 theaters on Jan. 13 showed “The First Emperor” by Tan Dun.

The number of theaters increased for the Feb. 24 presentation of “Eugene Onegin” by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The program will conclude with the presentation of “Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)” by Gioachino Rossini on March 24, and the April 28 presentation of “Il Trittico” by Giacomo Puccini.

Tickets for the live HD performances in the U.S. are $18 for adults and $15 for children. Tickets at the Met itself range from $15 for standing room only to often more than $300 for orchestra seating.

“The Magic Flute” sold 91 percent of the available seats and its January encore sold 67 percent of capacity, according to Borchard-Young. “I Puritani” sold 68 percent of its seats, which totaled 16,000 seats in one day. “The First Emperor” sold 64 percent of capacity, but with 111 theaters, the total was the highest at 25,000 seats. “Our house capacity at the Met is only 4,000 seats,” she noted, “so that's like selling out six productions at once.”

A HISTORY OF HD

The Metropolitan Opera telecast its first live performance in HDTV to Japan in 1990, said Borchard-Young, and in 2001 the Met did its first “PlazaCast” in the outdoor plaza of Lincoln Center as a benefit for 9/11 families. A second PlazaCast took place in 2002, and Gelb produced a third live HD PlazaCast for opening day in 2006 with a 32-foot screen at Lincoln Center plus displays on the giant screens in Times Square.

Given Gelb's background, Borchard-Young said, “he was enthusiastic about the idea of doing live HD broadcasts to local movie theaters.”

PBS stepped up as the series coproducer, she said. “This is the first time in many years that opera is back on PBS, which airs productions within a 30- to 75-day window after the live broadcasts in theaters, even if there's an overlap between a theater encore performance and the PBS airing,” she said. “The local PBS stations are taking an active role in promoting the theater events.”

Other promotional partners include the local classical music radio stations that have carried Saturday radio broadcasts from the Met since 1931. A more recent partner is Sirius Satellite Radio, which last year began broadcasting four live performances per week as part of the Met Opera Channel (Channel 85). The Met also streams productions on RealNetworks.

Borchard-Young conceded that watching a wide movie screen is not as compelling a seeing an opera live on stage, “but in some ways, watching in a movie theater is better because the camera lets you get up close and personal with the artists in stage, much closer than the orchestra seats allow.”

SIGNAL PROCESSING HURDLES

Behind the scenes stands Mark Schubin, the engineer in charge of the media department at the Metropolitan Opera. For the “Live in HD” series, his main facility provider is All Mobile Video, a New York City-based mobile production company, which is providing its Titan production truck and B unit tender along with an uplink operator.

“The hardest part of the production is providing a signal in the various forms that people need it,” Schubin said. “We have to output live HD video with and without English subtitles at both 29.97 frames per second for most theaters and at 25 frames per second for the receivers in theaters with digital projection gear using the European rate. Some theaters are receiving the live transmission by satellite, and some by fiber, which affects what we put out. We also have 28 different video recordings of differing specifications for the encore theater presentations, PBS, and the home video market.”

Audio output with stereo and 5.1-channel surround sound is equally complex.

“Movie theaters with surround sound have different requirements from PBS stations,” Schubin said. “Audio that works great in a living room can lose its intelligibility in a large movie theater, with surround sound speakers all around the audience. This is why the PBS stations need a different audio feed from the movie theaters. The broadcast radio stations also require their own specialized feed, as does Sirius Radio and Real Networks.”

The Met transmits HD video at 1080i/29.97, 1080i/25, and 720p/59.94 with PCM, MPEG Layer 2, and AC-3 audio coding at different data rates. Video data rates vary such as uncompressed video at 1.5 Gbps over Verizon HD circuits for the PBS stations, to 57 Mbps, 52 Mbps and 19.8 Mbps for some theaters. Live performances are satcast to the cinema network and the Franco-German Arte HD network over transponders on the AMC-5, Nimiq-2, AB-1, W-3, Sirius-2 European, and Sirius-2 Nordic satellites.

Within the Met, Schubin said, the productions are shot in 1080i/29.97 with up to 14 Sony HDC-950/1000/1500 cameras. The same video goes out to all of the theaters, but the recorded video going to PBS stations has more close-ups inserted for the smaller home screen.

Atlantic Cine Equipment, a Baltimore-based provider of specialized camera mounting equipment, provides the camera robotics.

“The Met stage is busier than Grand Central Terminal and there's no room for a remote control booth,” Schubin said, “so the only place available is under the stage, which already contains so much equipment that it looks like the inside of an aircraft carrier.”

Adding further complications is the opera intermission. Since the two TV directors, Brian Large and Gary Halvorson, both wanted a break during the intermission, Tony Marshall was brought in as a third director in a separate control room to handle the live backstage interviews with the stage and artists and staff, as well as prerecorded packages.

Intermission content for radio may vary considerably from the content for video, so the Met assigned Associate Director Karen McLaughlin to serve as the intermission coordinator between the radio shows and video directors.

If a segment on the radio side finishes before TV is ready, McLaughlin may ask announcer Margaret Juntwait to fill time until the two shows can join up again.

“Sometimes the video signals carry only her voice,” Schubin said, “and sometimes it carries both her voice and face.”

ATTENTION TO DETAILS

Eric Duke, president of All Mobile Video acknowledges that the Met “does have some demanding specifications.

“Our engineer in charge, Lee Blanco, must pay constant attention to all details, such as camera lens configuration and tape configuration. He has to ensure that live productions are distributed immediately to the theaters and subsequently to PBS. He has to make sure the B unit trailer is properly packed and organized so the crew can quickly grab whatever is needed on the fly, like a replacement tripod or a dolly. He has to make sure the equipment maintenance shop within the B unit always has everything needed to keep gear working on location.”

Blanco also must deal with ongoing innovation. Duke said the Met has deployed a prototype low-profile camera for the front edge of the stage that's able to follow the stage action. “That system is still evolving,” he said.

“We've been working with the Met for a number of years,” Duke said, “so we're pretty much able to anticipate what's coming at us. That's why this complex 'Live in HD' series is not as difficult as we expected. The Met team is very professional, so it's easy to work with them.”