'Nixon' in China, and Dubuque, Too

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Going behind the scenes with the pre-production crew at the Met as they prepare to transmit a New York opera to thousands of theatergoers around the world

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On February 21, 1972, when Richard Nixon visited China, the technology used to beam the welcoming party around the planet and back to the United States was state-of-the-art. Nixon made sure of it. As the presidential plane, the Spirit of '76, descended the gray Peking skies, a satellite hook-up installed in China by White House staffers waited to capture and disseminate "the key picture of the whole trip," as the president called it.

The picture became an icon of Realpolitik, in spite of the fuss. On the ground, the scene was composed of brilliant blues (the Chinese premier Chou En-lai's long ceremonial coat and the president's business suit), subversive reds (the plane's airstairs and the far away banners), and, less conspicuously, the drab green worn by the 500 Chinese honor guards in attendance. There were stars on the soldier's caps and on the American and Chinese flags that hung over the proceedings. But most crucially for Nixon, there were two pair of hands clasped, his and Chou's -- West glad-handing East.

The scene came together without a hitch, like something from a double proscenium, even if the details didn't register as clearly as the president might have liked for many of the folks back in the U.S. One viewer in Nixon's home state of California, a 25-year-old music student named John Adams, watched the event on a little black and white set, the figures of Nixon and Chou floating as a single shape on Adams' screen.

Like a televised sporting event, the on-site decisions behind a Live program happen in a trailer outside the Met.

It was undoubtedly these ghosts, tormented by an uneven cathodic flow, which revisited Adams' imagination when, eleven years later, a 23-year old theater director named Peter Sellers approached the composer with an idea for an opera called "Nixon in China."

Last week in New York, a new production of Nixon in China had its Metropolitan Opera premiere. For the stage crew, the curtain marked a triumph. But for a shadow staff of broadcast professionals, pre-production had only begun. It's this small group of producers and technicians who are charged with a task uncannily similar to the White House's in the winter of 1972. They are presently readying Adams' opera (with a libretto by American poet Alice Goodman) for satellite transmission to over 600 cinemas around the world as part of the Met's popular series, Live in HD.

The Met's experiments with the airwaves go back a century when, in 1910, Enrico Caruso starred in a pioneering radio broadcast. Then, in 1948, as television began to divide and conquer radio listeners' attention spans, ABC TV carried a premiere of Giuseppe Verdi's Othello. The true precedent for Live in HD, though, was transmitted in 1952, when cinema audiences in 27 U.S. cities received the Met's opening night performance of Georges Bizet's Carmen. In the 20th century's second half, the Met's affair with technology cooled, allowing for only the occasional flame-up, including an early high-definition telecast to Japan in 1991.

The turning point was 2006, when movie producer Peter Gelb took over as the Met's general manager. As is the habit of people in the movie trade, Gelb immediately set his sights on the youth market with Live in HD as his strategy's first salvo. In the fall of that year, the Met sent Anthony Minghella's production of Madame Butterfly in a "plaza cast" to the Lincoln Center and Times Square. This was soon followed by Julie Taymor's unorthodox reading of The Magic Flute, which reached over 100 movie theaters around the globe.

Pre-production on a Live in HD event begins with the stage crew's dress rehearsal. There, a three-camera tape is compiled, which the director uses to draft a shooting script. A few days before the Saturday transmission, the Live staff co-opt a stage performance for their own dress rehearsal. Up to fourteen camera angles are tried, though for the actual transmission the shots are often chosen on the spot.

Like a televised sporting event, the on-site decisions behind a Live in HD program happen in a trailer outside the Met during the opera. A bank of monitors show a dozen or more angles to the director who uses these raw feeds to compose the evening's montage. Several cameras are operated by remote control, like the vertical dollies and tracking cameras. These are so essential to Live in HD's look, the producers employ extra cameras to monitor them. Though the dollies are designed to be unobtrusive, their entomic sleekness remind observant members of the Met's live audience how the company has moved headlong into the 21st century.

For the distant audiences in the movie houses, Live in HD's signature is the probing close-up, an effect often achieved with a camera automatically tracking around the footlights. This lip of the stage is where many Live in HD performers have had to surrender their tricks for staying on cue: no more glances at the conductor or winking to a duet partner. In high-definition, such details become little spectacles in themselves.

No feature of a digitized opera receives so savage a treatment as the duet. The score could be a masterpiece and the stage design painstaking but chemistry is never a given. For Saturday's transmission, baritones James Maddalena and Russell Braun will respectively assume the roles of Nixon and Chou. Through their trilling doppelgängers, the president and the premier will meet again among the familiar blues, reds and greens of Peking, 39 years ago this month. Only this time audiences worldwide will receive Nixon's "key picture" more vividly -- more tellingly -- than even he hoped.

Images: Metropolitan Opera.

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Andrew Stout has written profiles, humor, and essays for The Economist online, Interview online, and SF Weekly, among other publications. His Internet radio station, This Day Has One Hundred Years, launches in the spring.

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