I have spent the last few days exploring the Met Player, the new opera streaming facility offered to a worldwide home computer audience by the Met, and very exciting it is too.
You may have seen a Metropolitan Opera production in a cinema near you over recent months, and now the same experience is available over the internet in the comfort of your own home, at whatever time of day or night you choose. Fancy a blast of La Boheme at 1 am after a late party? It takes about 90 seconds from clicking your computer's browser button (in my case Safari) to watching and listening Angela Gheorghiu in HD singing Mi chiamano Mimì halfway through Act One.
The initial catalogue of opera performances ranges from audio only, for productions recorded in the 1950s and 1960s (and, believe it or not, even for some very recent productions such as Domingo's 2009 Adriana Lecouvreur), through a whole series of standard colour videos filmed in the 1980s and 1990s, right up to the small selection of HD recordings that the Met have been making from 2006 onwards. The difference in quality is marked: some of the earlier videos are slightly fuzzy, camera work can be clunky and sound quality is not always top-notch: but the later recordings (such as the Otto Schenk Ring cycle, which has just been playing again live at the Met) and in particular the HD titles are excellent technically in every respect. And with freedom to browse the entire catalogue, what treasures I came across! More anon.
The first thing to say about Met Player is that it is simplicity itself to operate. It is on the Metoperafamily website, and there you are greeted by a very user-friendly layout. Clicking on Watch and Listen brings up a page of operating instructions, including the very useful 'How Met Player works', and a selection from the full catalogue of titles available. Three are offered as free samples: arias from the 2008 Opening Night Gala in HD, from La Rondine with Gheorghiu and Alagna also in HD, and from the 1995 production of Otello, with Domingo and Fleming. They are well-chosen tasters. The rest of the catalogue is available either on a one-off basis or on monthly or annual subscription. There is also a 7 day free trial period, which converts to monthly subscription unless cancelled at the end of the 7 days. How many operas can you actually watch and take in over a free trial week?!
Pricing seems to me to be reasonable. For a single opera you pay $3.99 or $4.99 if in HD, you have 30 days in which to view it and 6 hours from the moment you press the 'play' button. A monthly subscription is $14.99 and an annual one is $149.99 - with discounts available to those who are already enrolled as Met supporters in one way or another. Impoverished music students might blench at paying $14.99 per month for their opera, but as a group viewing and listening experience around a modern computer with decent sound, it is pretty good value. I found that on a 32'' Apple iMac with hi-fi speakers attached, the sound and vision quality equals any commercial DVD. There is no blurring, no buffering, no awkward pauses or glitches. After a loading period of between 10 and 15 seconds, any title is ready to play. You can jump tracks, pause, move between window-size to full screen at the click of a key.
Subtitles can be turned on and off: the older productions have English subtitles only but the HD titles, naturally enough, offer a choice of languages. Each individual track has details of the performers involved, timings and there are useful buttons to press with synopses, production credits and so on. Whoever designed the site has thought of practically everything: I cannot fault it in terms of responsiveness, ease of use and sensible, practical features. Some of the credit for this may go to the Move Media Player that is downloaded when you first log onto the site - it seems to me, compared with some earlier media players that I have experienced, a model of quiet, unobtrusive sophistication.
But what about the content? By my calculations there are currently 216 performances available to stream, with new titles being added monthly. The titles break down into 154 sound broadcasts only, the earliest I found being a 1944 production of Die Walkure with Melchior singing under the baton of Georg Szell, and 62 filmed performances, of which 20 are offered in HD.
The standard repertoire is well represented, with performances from different eras offering a fascinating contrast in singing and conducting styles. Take La Traviata for example. You can sample Tebaldi and Campora under Fausto Cleva in 1957, Cotrubas and Domingo under Levine in 1981, Fleming and Vargas under Gergiev in 2004 or Gheorghiu and Kaufmann under Armiliato in 2006. These are all sound only - there is not yet a filmed Traviata on offer, but it cannot be long in coming.
A charge against the Met has been that its repertoire is mainstream and mainly conservative, and the list of titles available certainly has its fair share of Aida, Boheme, Rigoletto and Carmen performances (3 or 4 different casts and productions in each case). But I relished the chance to experience Doctor Atomic with Gerald Finley, filmed in HD in 2008, or Tan Dun's The First Emperor, also in HD from 2007. And it is great to have available some of the byways of the repertoire: a particular favourite of mine is the 1979 video of Luisa Miller, with Scotto and Domingo under Levine (there is incidentally a great deal of Levine conducting, as you would expect - I have become quite used to his style!).
Apart from the many titles that were a 'must sample' - the Otto Schenk Ring, a warmly traditional Meistersinger, an equally traditional Falstaff and the Mattila Salome in HD - I found huge nostalgic pleasure in looking again at Pavarotti in a 1983 Ernani and at Freni and Domingo in that wonderful piece of verismo Fedora. And to have the 2008 Peter Grimes under Runnicles on tap, the one with that wall of eerily swinging doors, and a traditional but well-crafted Lucia di Lammermoor with Netrebko from earlier this year, is tempting fare. Don't take my word for it: have a look at the site and see for yourself.
Met Player seems to me to offer just about as high a quality home computer opera experience as you could get. It will, I suspect, truly come into its own when all HD home television sets have hifi speakers attached and are fed routinely by broadband Internet, just as some are starting to do. But if your home computer configuration offers a decent sound and vision experience, there is nothing to stop you joining Met Player now - it really is an impressive service. So full marks to the Met, and may they prosper.
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