Taking a wrong turn and accidentally wandering into Larry the Cable Guy's latest blue collar comedy catastrophe at the local multiplex is one thing.

But imagine the shock of those lost souls who mistakenly turn right from "10,000 B.C.," when they should have turned left.

And find themselves smack in the middle of a Puccini aria or a blast of Wagner bombast.

In 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround-Sound.

Such has been the case with one of the more unusual cinema phenomena of recent memory.

In less than two weeks' time, three opera series emanating from three world-class opera houses have begun taking over screens at area theaters.

With more than 100 years of movie history having passed without opera making any significant headway at the bijou, what's up with this?

In this auditorium, it's Italy's La Scala Opera House going great guns with "La Traviata."

In that auditorium, it's the San Francisco Opera rendering the aria up there via "Don Giovanni."

Over in the auditorium across the lobby, New York's Metropolitan Opera is going to hell and back with the tragedy of "Tristan und Isolde."

The reason for this sudden explosion of voices, say area theater officials, is easy: conversion of cinemas to digital projection has made possible the showing of things on movie screens that just several years ago would have been unthinkable.

It's called "alternative content" (see accompanying story).

However, the near-simultaneous arrival of three separate and distinct series featuring opera runs slightly closer to coincidence.

Beginning two weekends ago, Bloomington's Galaxy Cine 14 and Palace Cinemas began screening the San Francisco Opera series, which continues with three more titles through late April.

Beginning Wednesday, the Galaxy Cine 14 ups the ante by adding a second series from Italy's legendary La Scala Opera House.

The third series, which hails from New York's The Met, differs in that it offers live simulcasts of its productions.

The San Francisco and La Scala series feature digitally filmed operas that have been finessed in post-production using editing to create close-ups, medium shots and other film-like grammar.

Currently, the Met's exclusive Central Illinois venue is the Goodrich Willow Knolls 14 Cinemas in Peoria. There is a chance, officials say, that it could make its way to a Bloomington-Normal screen down the road.

In each series' case, ticket prices reflect the rarefied nature of the alternative content: adult admissions average $20 per ticket for a limited number of showings, which range from four apiece with the San Francisco Opera to two apiece for La Scala. Because its operas are transmitted live, there is, understandably, only one showing per Metropolitan opera.

According to Wehrenberg Cinemas' marketing director Kelly Hoskins, "Expectations are that they will be well-received," despite the sudden appearance of multiple opera options.

"This is alternative content that is different from motion pictures, and that will reach out and bring in customers who normally wouldn't come to a movie," she says.

And those customers, who will already have a vested interest in opera, won't be stymied by the fact that an opera at the movies will cost a third or more at the box office than a movie at the movies.

"This is simply the first blush of the alternative content that is being delivered to exhibitors," she says. "It could have been something from the gaming realm, or it could have been 'Sing-Along Grease,' or it could have been a Tom Petty concert."

But, as it turns out, opera is leading the way in terms of numbers of options in a concentrated period of time (March through late April).

A spokeswoman for the San Francisco Opera, which calls its series "cinemacasts," says projection of its productions in movie theaters is an outgrowth of the opera's new mission to "take the opera out of the opera house."

That crusade began two years ago with free public simulcasts of operas on giant screens positioned outside the downtown San Francisco City Hall building. Those were followed by recorded showings in seven Bay City area cinemas a year ago.

Now San Francisco is taking the opera out of the opera house to 120 theaters around the country, including two in Bloomington.

"These are like Hollywood productions, in that they have been filmed and put through post-production - so this is a whole different thing than what, say, the Met is doing with its live broadcasts," the spokeswoman says.

The advantage of recording an opera and editing it like a film, she says, "is that you get the highest level of quality in terms of the HD picture and sound."

The La Scala Opera series is using the same approach: digitally recording its operas and then upping the audio-visual ante in post-production, says Matthew Kearny, CEO of Screenvision Programming Services, which is delivering the series to around 45 markets nationwide - once again, with Bloomington-Normal in the select lineup.

"What people will experience this way," he says, "is the sensation of you-are-there in the La Scala Opera House in Italy, without the expense of traveling to Milan, and with far superior image and sound quality."

"At a live opera, you can have great acoustics, but you can't drown out the audience sounds like sniffing and coughing," says Kearny.

Speaking of which, the Metropolitan Opera's Kimberly Elek asserts that the Met's live simulcasts provide what the digitally recorded versions don't: that unerring aura of immediacy that comes with the knowledge that what you are seeing in the cinema is happening, note for note, at that point of origin.

In this case, the world-famous Met.

While the recorded operas are described as being "fresh out of the oven," the Met's live operas, she says, "are still IN the oven."

The series, which began a year ago in around 50 markets "and was wildly successful," has expanded this year to more than 110 markets.

"You could have front-row seats at the Met in New York, but you can see things in an HD theater you wouldn't be able to see even there," Elek says.

As for the pricier Cineplex ticket for the simulcasts: "People can appreciate having access to a live performance, which would be far more expensive to travel to see," Elek says. "I don't think that's a barrier at all."

Aria raids

Following is a breakdown of the three opera series currently in Central Illinois cinemas:

San Francisco Opera

In Bloomington-Normal, the San Francisco Opera series is screening at both Wehrenberg Theaters' Galaxy Cine 14 and the Carmike Cinemas' Palace Cinemas. The series offers digitally filmed records of recent productions, which are embellished in post-production with film-like editing techniques (close-ups, different camera angles, etc.). The series debuted March 8 with "La Rondine"; upcoming are:

• March 29-April 1: Saint-Saens' "Samson and Delilah"

• April 12-15: Mozart's "Don Giovanni"

• April 19-22: Puccini's "Madama Butterfly"

Tickets are $20, with a $2 discount for senior citizens. Times vary.

La Scala Opera

In Bloomington-Normal, the La Scala Opera series is screening at the Galaxy 14 Cine only. Like the San Francisco Opera series, it offers digitally filmed records of recent productions, which are then finessed in post-production with film-like editing. The series debuts Wednesday. Following is the lineup:

• Wednesday: Verdi's "La Traviata"

• April 30: Donizetti's "Marua Stuarda"

• May 15: Puccini's "Il Trittico"

Tickets are $20, with a $2 discount for senior citizens. All showings are at 2 and 7 p.m.

Metropolitan Opera

Though the Metropolitan Opera series has yet to be scheduled in Bloomington-Normal, it is available at the Goodrich Willow Knolls 14 Cinemas in Peoria. The Met series is simulcast live to theaters, direct from the Met Opera in New York. What it may lack in post-production polish is made up for by immediacy, along with live interviews with performer and backstage tours. Following are upcoming offerings:

• Saturday: Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," starring Deborah Voigt and Ben Heppner

• April 5: Puccini's "La Boheme," produced by Franco Zeffirelli, with Angela Gheorghiu and Ramon Vargas

• April 26: Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment," starring Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez

Tickets are $22 for adults, $20 for seniors and $15 for children. Showings are either 11:30 a.m. or 12:30 p.m.

Enjoying the 'alternative'

By Dan Craft | dcraft@pantagraph.com

The sudden explosion of opera on area movie screens is just the first big volley fired by what digitally rigged movie theaters are billing as "alternative content."

Leading the pack in this crusade is the New York-based company Screenvision Programming Services, providers of the La Scala Opera Series debuting Wednesday at the Galaxy 14 Cine in Bloomington.

The company is better known as a global leader in cinema advertising.

But all of that is rapidly changing as the company grows from providing advertising to providing the fare on marquees.

In a GO! interview, Screenvision's CEO, Matthew Kearny, described the opera invasion as "probably the first success" in this realm.

Though we've had a taste of two of this future via recent one-shot concert events like the 3-D Hannah Montana and U-2 movies and last weekend's "WWE: Stars of Wrestlemania," nothing has arrived on quite the mass scale of the opera onslaught, which involves three separate series.

"What you're seeing is part of a trend moving forward, enabled by technology," says Kearny. "That trend is so-called alternative content for movie theaters - which is an alternative to the movies."

The idea is to help movie exhibitors attract new audiences and expand profitability during off-peak hours.

The opera tsunami washing over cinemas is the most visible at the moment. But coming soon, promises Kearny, is a myriad of live sporting events and various incarnations (both live and filmed) of performing arts attractions like ballet, theater, and symphony orchestras.

For example, last summer Screenvision debuted another series, dubbed "Mets at the Movies," in New York's famed Ziegfeld Theater.

Offered was a live simulcast of the New York Mets' Aug. 29 road game against the Philadelphia Phillies on the Ziegfeld's 50-by-23-foot screen, along with traditional Shea Stadium in-game activities, including T-shirt launches and sing-alongs during the evening.

"Fans can enjoy the atmosphere of being at a baseball game in the theater," Kearny says. "We will be working on expanding this concept into other markets," including, he predicts, Chicago, home of two certain baseball clubs ripe for simulcasting on giant screens.

As time and technology move on, Kearny says, alternative content will continue to grow and evolve as audiences are cultivated and expanded.

Virtually any event that can be captured digitally, he says, is fair game for "alternative content" exposure.

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