Live from the Met

An Irishwoman’s Diary: Opera on your doorstep

‘The fourth of this season’s 10 operas, Verdi’s Falstaff, conducted by James Levine and directed by Robert Carsen, will be broadcast live on Saturday.’ Above, Ambrogio Maestri in the title role in Verdi’s Falstaff

‘The fourth of this season’s 10 operas, Verdi’s Falstaff, conducted by James Levine and directed by Robert Carsen, will be broadcast live on Saturday.’ Above, Ambrogio Maestri in the title role in Verdi’s Falstaff


Aspiring young opera singers from all over the world dream of performing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. That is not to suggest that they don’t hold similar ambitions to sing in Berlin, Vienna or on the stage of the legendary La Scala in Milan, but the Met productions reach an increasingly huge audience. And while singers are eager to sing at the Met, opera lovers also dream of being in the audience and experiencing a national institution. Those who could not attend first got a taste of it with the introduction of the network radio broadcasts that began bringing the sounds of the Met into homes all over America in 1931 and have continued.

Saturday matinees performances at the Met have been introducing not only opera but classical music to generations. For Murray Perahia, the great American pianist, the many Saturday afternoons he spent at the Met with his father inspired in him a love of music that would begin with piano lessons given by a teacher so strict that he was only allowed to play the same piece, over and over, until it was perfect. Even so, the young Perahia did not mind as opera had already captured his imagination. It was not just the singing; it was the music.

The Italian communities in New York never lost sight of the fact that Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini were their special contribution to the world and many Italians have no inhibitions when it comes to an impromptu aria. Yet for too long, opera, a form written for the people, had become the preserve of the wealthy; ticket prices were prohibitive and corporate bookings reduced a night at the opera to an expensive social outing to be endured by spouses with little or no interest in the events on stage.

In common with Shakespeare’s theatre, opera was intended as mass entertainment and those Metropolitan Opera Saturday afternoon matinee broadcasts remain the longest-running continuous classical music programme in history. Listeners to RTÉ Lyric FM have also been able to tune in to the Met on a Saturday evening. In 2006 Peter Gleb, the then new general manager of the Met realised it was time for opera to capitalise on the technological revolution. On December 30th that year, the Met widened the range of its broadcasts by broadcasting live in high definition to 100 cinemas and theatres in the US as well as to seven similar venues in Britain and a further two in Japan. The production was a scaled down version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, performed in English. It was the beginning; the idea was to return opera to its origins as a local community experience, if with a fledging international dimension.

A brilliant idea has become a vivid, global reality; this season, the Met Live in HD, as well as the Bolshoi Ballet and the Berlin Philharmonic are being broadcast on screens in 1,900 venues in 64 countries to an audience of three million. A dozen cities and towns in Ireland are participating: Dublin offers six venues and Belfast has three. Other Irish venues are in Arklow, Castlebar, Cork, Drogheda, Galway, Letterkenny, Limerick, Lisburn, Sligo and Waterford.

The fourth of this season’s 10 operas, Verdi’s Falstaff conducted by James Levine and directed by Robert Carsen, will be broadcast live on Saturday. Only two of this season’s six Bolshoi Ballet productions have been recorded live, including Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty which will be broadcast on Sunday, December 22nd, the others, including Jewels, choreographed by George Balanchine to a triptych score featuring the music of Fauré, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, are being broadcast live. The Berlin Philharmonic’s programme includes a New Year’s Eve Concert conducted by Simon Rattle, while Rattle returns later in the season, on February 28th at 6.30 for a performance of Bach’s St John Passion.

In the Drogheda Arts Centre on a Saturday evening in November I heard and watched Roberto Alagna sing Cavaradossi, to Patricia Racette’s Tosca in a terrific performance of Puccini’s drama. The venue was full and the audience was mesmerised. Jayne Smyth, a young agricultural science student told me it was her first opera: “Now I want to see more.” The performances are obviously world-class, but there is another unique aspect, that of the behind the scenes features during the intervals, in which one of the world’s finest lyric sopranos, New Yorker Renee Fleming played the part of an opera fan and interviewed the performers.

Based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff was Verdi’s final opera. He had been wary of writing it; he felt he was too old. It premiered in Milan in February 1893 and its first performance outside Italy took place in Vienna, four months later, conducted by Gustav Mahler. Verdi turned 80 that October. He lived on until January 1901. Falstaff, one of his two comedies among the 18 operas he wrote, resounds with theatrical flair. Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri sings the title role and this is a tremendous production full of life, verve and pathos as the old order changes.

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