Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Serious Drama Follows Opera to the Movies

While I was arguing that "I would have paid the price of an HD Metropolitan Opera movie ticket to see any of the London Symphony Orchestra performances of the complete cycle of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler during its 2007–2008 season, all conducted by Valery Gergiev, particularly if the video was directed in the spirit of [Jordan] Whitelaw and [Barbara Willis] Sweete," plans seem to have been under way to allow me to enjoy Britain's National Theatre as an alternative. Stephen Adams, Arts Correspondent for the London Telegraph, just released the following story:

Around 50 independent cinemas around Britain, but not in central London, will screen a single night of four productions, including the Picturehouse chain. They will use satellite transmission to beam in high definition pictures. About 100 cinemas in North America, Australia and elsewhere will also screen them within 24 hours.

The first production to go live in cinemas will be Phèdre, a French classical tragedy, which will star Dame Helen [Mirren] in the title role.

Outlining what is to be called 'NT Live' Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National Theatre, said the filmed performance would take place a couple of weeks after Phèdre opened in June.

He admitted using Dame Helen as a figurehead to draw attention to the idea - and get fellow actors and actresses on board.

"The reason I said Phèdre [would be the first production to go live] is that Helen said 'Yes' and I dare anybody to say no," he said.

Mirren, 63, was invested as a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2003. Three years later she won an Oscar for best actress for her title-role performance in The Queen. She last appeared at the National Theatre in 2004.

Hytner said independent cinemas rather than multiplexes have been chosen because he did not think the screenings would appeal to viewers of the latest "gross-out teen comedy".

He and his colleagues have yet to chose the other three productions to be filmed, he noted, adding: "We will look for stuff that really has wide appeal."

Personally, I think this is a great idea. I have not been particularly happy with the opportunities for serious theater in San Francisco, and things have not been much better in the broader scope of the Bay Area. As a matter of fact, I am not sure I have had an opportunity to see any Racine since I moved to the Bay Area in 1995. To be fair, those opportunities are pretty sparse anywhere in the United States; and the only time I ever saw Phèdre was during my student days in the greater Boston area. Since Hytner himself has a good eye for cinema/video capture, I am hoping that he will draw upon video talent as good as the team behind the Metropolitan Opera productions. I am not sure that Racine falls into that category of "stuff that really has wide appeal;" but we certainly cannot discount Mirren's star power. (Think of the star power behind the Lincoln Center production of Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia trilogy, which led to New York bookstores selling out their copies of Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers.) Having now seen HD from the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, as well as the Met in New York, I have been wondering when I would get to see something from London; and I certainly appreciate this news that the National Theatre will be leading the way into this application of the new technology.

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