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Broadcasts Of ‘Live’ Theater And Opera Are Terrific In Their Own Way

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The sold-out show wouldn’t start for 45 minutes, but dozens of ticket holders were lined up outside the Coolidge Corner Theatre on a fall evening, waiting to get in to a screening of the National Theatre’s production of “Othello.”

“There’s always a crowd, there’s always a line around building,” said Mary Mastandrea, a longtime Brookline High School teacher, drama coach and veteran of the digital broadcasts, which stream a “live” show from a London stage to cinemas across the world. “These shows sell out consistently. It’s a fantastic experience.”

I’d been curious about the growing enthusiasm for the London National Theatre live productions, and the explosive popularity of their older, flashier predecessor, Metropolitan Opera Live in HD — not to mention the criticism among opera aficionados who consider the broadcasts substandard — perhaps even insidious — substitutes for the real thing. I’d also recently seen this wildly and deservedly acclaimed “Othello” on stage in London, so I had points to compare.

Taking its cue from the Met, which released its first “cinematic experience in a live format” in 2006, the National launched its own series in 2009 with “Phedre” starring Helen Mirren. That show attracted 50,000 viewers in 70 cinemas in the U.K. and another 200 worldwide, according to the National, which says it now reaches 500 venues and a cumulative audience of more than 1.5 million. The Met, meanwhile, says it transmits to more than 2 million people per season in 1,900 locations worldwide.

“These aren’t filmed plays, they’re real theatrical productions,” Mastandrea assured me. Both the National Theatre and the Met sink considerable resources into producing, recording and showcasing their productions. Cameras positioned in more than half a dozen locations in the auditorium shoot high-quality video of a live performance, which is beamed to “partner venues,” where cinema audiences watch from what are billed as the best seats in the house. The presentations are augmented with slickly produced introductions, background interviews and commentaries, as well as live video shot just before curtain time and during intermission. Tickets are reasonably priced at around $20, but the number of the broadcasts is limited, usually to one live (or time-delayed) transmission and an encore performance or two, which adds to their appeal as “must-see” events.

Seats for the Met’s live Saturday afternoon broadcasts from Lincoln Center frequently sell out in advance at the three Boston-area multiplexes that screen them. So do the National Theatre performances, which are actually beamed live by satellite to venues in the U.K. and Europe, then shown five hours later in hundreds of North American movie houses including the Coolidge, the only Boston-area venue.

Film Simulates, Theater Insinuates

Still, I went to my first show with some trepidation. No broadcast or recording can recreate or even compete with the experience of sitting in a theater or concert hall watching stellar stage actors, singers and musicians perform live.

Film simulates, theater insinuates. And the HD recording failed to convey the striking dimensions and palpable tension in Nicholas Hytner’s “Othello,” which was set on a bleak and isolated present-day British army base in Cyprus — a grim garrison of wire fences, concrete bunkers and makeshift quarters for battle-ready soldiers that underscored the military order and restiveness at the center of the play.

Iago (Rory Kinnear) and Othello (Adrian Lester) in a scene from the National Theatre's production of "Othello." (Johan Persson)

Iago (Rory Kinnear) and Othello (Adrian Lester) in a scene from the National Theatre’s production of “Othello.” (Johan Persson)

The actors’ voices didn’t resonate in the movie house the way they did in the theater; the sounds of a helicopter approaching and a fight breaking out weren’t as dramatic. I also missed some of the small pleasures of live theater, like hearing other people in the audience exhale at the same time I did, at the end one of Iago’s breathtakingly malevolent monologues.

But “Othello” on the big screen was terrific in its own way.

High-def video seems particularly well suited to recording and showing live performance on a big screen. Watching the face of Othello (Adrian Lester) close up when he speaks “of being taken by the insolent foe and sold to slavery,” or Iago (Rory Kinnear) almost choking on the words before spitting out “I hate the Moor,” was electrifying. And while it wasn’t live, it felt like a theatrical event.

The broadcasts allow fans of opera and theater the chance to share the experience of live performance easily and more often. To my surprise, watching a superb performance of a Shakespeare play in a sold-out movie house at roughly the same time as more than 100,000 people on both sides of the Atlantic turned out to be enthralling.

‘There’s A Filter Between Me And The Experience’

The larger-than-life broadcasts have certainly drawn critics. More than one commentator has called National Theatre broadcasts lifeless. Others consider it over the top. When the London Telegraph asked readers whether live theater should be shown in movie theaters, 21 percent said “no.”

Up-Coming Broadcasts:

“Macbeth”
November 25 | 7 p.m.
National Theatre Live
Coolidge Corner Theatre

“Richard II”
December 8 | 1 p.m.
Royal Shakespeare Company
ArtsEmerson Paramount Center

“Falstaff”
Live: December 14 | 12:55 p.m.
Encore: December 18 | 6:30 p.m.
Fenway 13 RPX, Dedham Legacy Place & Framingham 15

“Coriolanus”
January 30 | 7 p.m.
National Theatre Live
Coolidge Corner Theatre

To opera fans like Cambridge artist Paul Shakespear, the biggest drawback of the Met broadcasts “is the lack of live music.” But Shakespear also doesn’t like feeling as if “there’s a filter between me and the experience. The camera is forcing my eye movement. The issue is control. If I’m in the house, I want to look at what I want to look at. I can feel the camera and director, and I feel that the way it’s being staged is directed by camera shots.”

Ardent opera lovers, including some mainstream media critics, categorically dismiss the productions as expensive knock-offs that mislead audiences and may pose a threat to the future of live opera performance. New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini recently distilled the most common complaints and criticisms in an article responding to Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb’s upbeat assessment of the series. Gelb told the Times that live attendance had dipped a few percentage points, owing in part to the broadcasts. Those, however, have quadrupled the Met’s “paying audience” to slightly more than 3 million, including 800,000 who attend live performances, he pointed out.

As Tommasini sees it, these developments signal worrying trends. Unlike the Met’s Saturday matinee radio broadcasts, which were “incalculably beneficial to the growth of opera,” the HD broadcasts do not stoke new interest in live performance, he asserted. And if more and more operagoers become accustomed to the convenience, comfort and cost of watching it at their local movie houses, he wondered, will they stop going to the Met? And will young people who first experience opera in HD mistake it for real thing?

It’s not clear whether broadcasts will pique interest in live performances. But there’s little question that these programs have made theatrical and operatic events available to tens of thousands of adults who might not otherwise see them, while extending the reach and boosting the income of organizations like the National and Met. Metropolitan Opera’s surveys of its cinema-going audience indicates that many of them are already interested in opera, at least in the New York area, Gelb told the Times.

Joseph Appleyard, a Jesuit priest retired from the faculty and administration at Boston College and a long time operagoer, suspects that is true in Greater Boston as well.

“I used to go to the Met once or twice a year when I was in New York on business or for some other reason,” he said. “But the price of a ticket, plus travel and lodging … is a substantial expense.” He now goes to the live broadcasts instead.

Marked Audience Declines

On the day I lined up to see “Othello” with a bevy of fellow baby boomers, several seniors and a smattering of 20-somethings, the National Endowment for the Arts released an audience survey showing a marked decline since 2008 in the number of people who go to live performances. The percentage of Americans who went to musicals dropped 9 percent between 2008 and 2012, and attendance at plays plummeted 12 percent, adding to a precipitous 33 percent decline in the past decade. (Opera held steady at 2.1 percent.)

But the broadcasts aren’t driving down those attendance numbers. Performing arts audiences are shrinking because their members are aging and their ranks aren’t being replenished. Theater, music and dance productions now compete for consumer attention with an increasingly rich range of live, digital and high-def entertainment offerings, many of them far less expensive and more readily accessible than tickets to a live performance.

During intermission at “Othello,” I overheard a clutch of millennials debating the gullibility of “poor Othello.” They bandied about plot points and cultural references (“Did you catch the green-eyed monster?”) as if they were talking about an episode of “Breaking Bad.” One or two of them seemed to have previously seen or read the play, and I suspect that might have remained true of the others if the Coolidge hadn’t screened it. Tickets to a production of a Shakespeare play at a regional theater runs, on average, three times as much as a broadcast. A mid-priced seat in the mezzanine at one of the Shakespeare plays now running in New York costs upwards of $130.

And the real concern shouldn’t be whether younger audiences enjoy live theater and opera in a concert hall or movie theater. It’s whether they’ll experience it at all.


A former Boston Globe reporter, Maureen Dezell is the author of the critically acclaimed “Irish America: Coming Into Clover” and a senior editor at Boston College.

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