The Michigan Theater is described as “Ann Arbor’s Historic Center for Fine Film & Performing Arts.” On January 28, 2007, visitors to the Michigan enjoyed the best of both worlds in a video broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of The First Emperor from January 13, 2007.
It was “Sunday Afternoon at the Opera” as the Michigan presented the first of maybe many broadcasts of world class opera from the Metropolitan stage. The First Emperor premiered this season at the Met, which added to the excitement of this “opening day” at the Michigan.
As the audience entered, it received program notes that described the plot of this two-act opera. It then enjoyed a 3 1/2-hour performance of a dramatic and ornate opera that was created in great part by two veterans of the film world: librettist/conductor Tan Dun (composer of the music for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and production designer Zhang Yimou (director of Raise the Red Lantern).
The Chinese heritage of these artists was very evident in this tale of the emperor who united all of China and began construction of the Great Wall. The camera often focused on the unique instrumentation, which included the pounding of stones on drums. Most fascinating was the stringed zheng, which was plucked in a dramatic manner by an instrumentalist who was a very visual part of the opera.
During intermission, you could see patrons re-reading the program notes, comparing their understandings of the plot. Other people analyzed the serious and light moments of the story, while others expressed admiration for the costumes and the varied instruments.
This high-definition video presentation of The First Emperor was particularly effective when it focused on the faces of the lead performers, who included the famous Spanish tenor Placido Domingo. The editing and quick cuts added dramatic tension that wouldn’t have been experienced in a live performance.
Maybe the best use of the camera was at the end, when it looked up at Domingo from the front of the stage. Behind him was a large, terraced set that included singers who were dressed in multi-colored robes with draped sleeves. The soaring sounds of the orchestra, chorus and Domingo added to the dramatic intensity of the scene.
The reflected light on the Michigan stage added to the live feeling of the opera. And the grandeur of the Michigan’s architecture heightened the dramatic passion that was spilling off the screen.
For me, the most thrilling moment came after the end of the opera. Thunderous applause greeted the separate curtain calls of the different performers, who had just spent more than three hours pouring out their emotions to a live audience.
The video presentation of The First Emperor was part of the Met’s move into the world of new media, which includes satellite radio and streaming web site broadcasts. And as always, you can catch Saturday matinee broadcasts of Met performances on CBC radio out of Canada and WKAR-FM from East Lansing.
Copyright 2007 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.