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Seattle Opera’s ‘Madama Butterfly’: Better in HD?

Patricia Racette in the title role of Madama Butterfly, on the HD screen at Key Arena. Credit: Ronald Holden

It was not the fervid excitement that used to precede a Sonics game at Key Arena, but a tranquil anticipation leading up to the first-ever simulcast of a local opera production. No matter that it's actually happening, live, at McCaw Hall, barely 300 yards away. The HD screen at one end of the Key is enormous, 50 by 80 feet, dwarfing the evening's live presenters. Previews play: interviews with designers and directors. And, just like the movies, there's a cartoon, the iconic “What's Opera, Doc?” parody of classical Wagner stagings. Then Speight Jenkins steps to the microphone at McCaw and onto the screen, ten times larger than life, to say a few words of welcome.

“Lights,” someone shouts from the balcony, where spotlights are still glaring. As conductor Julian Kovatchev mounts the podium (in a view from the orchestra pit that non-musicians will never see), the shouting becomes a chant, “Turn down the lights! Turn down the lights!” Just in time, the house lights dim, and the maestro gives the downbeat.

Movie directors have known for decades that close-ups do wonders for drawing people into a story. (“We didn't need dialogue; we had faces.") and Madama Butterfly's Patricia Racette spends the next three hours reconfirming her status as the queen of opera in HD: She doesn't need to say it, she is big. 

With remarkably few glitches (a split-screen effect in Act III that failed due to a wayward camera was an exception), the simulcast was better than the best seat I've ever had at McCaw. No opera glasses needed.

Video director Frank Zamcona (known for the successful “Opera at the Ballpark” series in San Francisco) uses his seven HD cameras to propel the story in ways no McCaw theatergoer could see, no matter where in the house they were sitting.

In Act I, for example, the camera catches Suzuki overhearing Pinkerton tell Sharpless that he's looking forward to the day he'll marry a “real American wife.” Although there's no way that a Japanese servant girl like Suzuki could actually understand a word of English, the cutaway (and Suzuki's arched eyebrow) tells the audience that she's already wary of Pinkerton.

The music continues without interruption. There are no recitatives, no spoken dialogue; everything is sung with dramatic immediacy. We see every twitch in Butterfly's composure. Patricia Racette isn't playing a part or singing a role, she's inhabiting her character with such conviction that we forget we're watching a performance. Even though the story is familiar, the outcome known to every opera-goer, we live Butterfly's anguish. At the climax, when Butterfly surrenders her child and kills herself, thousands of sports fans gasped in horror.

At McCaw, as Racette took her bows, the audience was on its feet (you could hear them stomping and cheering wildly), yet the Key was muted, the crowd strangely silent. Applause, yes, but polite. Almost no one standing. Not because they weren't moved, in my view, but because they were numb. It's thrilling to see and hear opera live, and we've been conditioned to respond with applause and calls of bravo at live performances. The hybrid HD experience overwhelms our senses and seems to call for a new set of responses.

When we were kids at the matinee, we'd cheer for the cavalry. Though HD is a different sort of adventure, we should allow ourselves to become kids again and cheer like crazy.

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