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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Met rolls out a new season of live broadcasts with high-tech Wagner

The Met will give a demonstration on how to use the machine this Saturday.
  • Yves Renaud/Metropolitan Opera
  • The Metropolitan Opera will give a demonstration on how to use the machine this Saturday.

The buzz at The Met this season isn't about a tenor, a soprano, a new conductor, or even about backstage diva antics. It's about a machine. Or more precisely the machine.

“The machine” is the high-tech piece of stagecraft designed for the Met's new productions of the four operas in Wagner's “Ring Cycle.” It's so enormous that the Met stage—already one of the largest and most technologically advanced in the world—had to be reinforced underneath with three 65 foot steel girders just to accommodate the machine's 45 tons. It's larger than life and just so... Wagnerian. (Though I can't help but think: wouldn't the perfect Wagnerian touch have been if the whole shebang collapsed just as the final note of “Götterdämmerung” sounded?)

It's hard to say what exactly the machine does without having seen it in action, but the facts around it have been enough to get people talking: it's big, it's heavy, it's cool, it's never been thunk of before, it's outrageously expensive, the various pieces rotate fluidly and independently and show moving images and possibly shoot lasers. The truth is that excitable Met fans shouldn't try to picture what the machine will look like in action because their heads may explode.

The Met has been cagey about how much “the machine” cost and how much they had to tip the movers who brought it in: The New York Times estimates the final bill for the production will be over the $16 million mark, making it one of the most expensive, ambitious, and elaborate Met stage productions ever.

Bryn Terfel as Wotan
  • Brigitte Lacombe/Metropolitan Opera
  • Bryn Terfel combines 80s glam and pirate chic as Wotan in Wagner's "Das Rheingold."
In spite of all the effort and expense that the Met has put forth on their behalf, strict Wagnerians—that lovable bunch of easy-going, fun-loving scamps—have not been entirely pleased. A distinct round of boos was heard from die-hards on opening night (But I don't think the machine is high-tech enough to have hurt feelings).

Although traditionalists may balk, I do think Wagner's “Ring,” more than any other opera, demands a great deal of innovation, stage wizardry, and invention. His operas are full of scenes which are never easy to realize on stage with traditional stagecraft: a descent into the underworld, mermaids swimming underwater, a fight with a giant snake, Valkyries swooping from the sky on flying horses, Valhalla burning: all these and more need to be brought on-stage quickly and silently so as not to interfere with the music or the drama. It's a production crying out for a high-tech machine that can do it all, and unfortunately, that's not the Magic Bullet or anything that can be ordered from TV.

And in the end, Wagnerians may like things their way, but the Met's new general manager Peter Gelb most assuredly likes things his. (One of his most controversial moves has been to begin phasing out the popular and pretty Zefferelli productions that have been part of the Met's bread and butter for years). It remains to be seen how local audiences will take to the new “Ring” and its machine: You can see for yourself when the Met rolls out its hugely popular series of simulcasts starting this Saturday afternoon with the first opera in Wagner's “Ring Cycle,” “Das Rheingold.”

(And perhaps I should mention, in addition to a machine, there's also music involved. And not just any music. This is Wagner's "Ring," ya'll. Live from the Met. Polish those breastplates and sharpen those helmet horns! Get psyched.)

The Met: Live in HD Series begins at local theaters this Saturday at 1 pm with “Das Rheingold,” the first opera in Wagner's “Ring Cycle.” The Met's series of broadcasts to local theaters continues throughout the year with 11 more live simulcasts on Saturday afternoons, closing out with the second opera in Wagner's “Ring Cycle,” “Die Walküre.” In addition to the live broadcasts, encore screenings are also shown throughout the year. For a complete list of productions, theaters and show-times, visit The Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD website.

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