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The Met Aims for the Masses 

Opera with popcorn

Julie Taymor is sending a whole new jungle to Charlotte. But this time, the filmmaker-designer-director who brought The Lion King triumphantly to Broadway is not on the Disney payroll.

Nope. Taymor is spearheading a high-tech, high-def invasion by The Metropolitan Opera.

After 75 years of Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts, the Met is reaching out across America -- and across the Atlantic -- with the latest video technology and equipment. Beginning this Saturday at 1:30 p.m., a select 130 movie theaters will broadcast Taymor's vision of Mozart's The Magic Flute live from the Met stage at Lincoln Center in resplendent widescreen HD.

Dancing bears, soaring birds, and a serpent mega-dosed on Viagara will live on those screens through Taymor's enchanting puppetry. The enticing eye-candy isn't all that's sweet about the new Met production. It's abridged to a family-friendly 100 minutes and sung in English.

Yes, unlike the free radio broadcasts that have nurtured opera lovers for decades, it's pay-as-you-go at the elite cineplexes where the Flute will screen. But with ticket prices set at $18 for adults and $15 for tots, the tab is less than 10 percent of what you'd pay for prime orchestra seats at the Met.

Since I'm currently in New York gorging on a smorgasbord of performing arts, I'll be heading out to a Regal multiplex in New Rochelle to check out the new HD phenomenon. But you don't have to journey further than Piper Glen to join me at the eye-popping spectacle -- or to luxuriate in the embrace of the surround sound.

The Regal Stonecrest, at 7824 Rea Road, will be showing The Magic Flute and the other five productions on the Met At the Movies slate for 2006-07. Fandango.com is handling advance ticketing, but you can also click through to the series -- and get more production info -- at www.metopera.org.

Bringing The Magic Flute to suburban cineplexes and exposing the classics to popcorn munchers is certainly the most audacious step the Met has taken under the new Peter Gelb regime. But it isn't the first. When the current season opened, Gelb brought Madama Butterfly to the heart of Manhattan, roping off Times Square and setting up folding chairs in front of a huge projection screen.

Nor is the HD series likely to be the last Met incursion into mass culture if it succeeds and grows. My guess is that Gelb may be licking his chops at the prospect of hooking video iPod users on the glories of Verdi and Puccini. Picture Aida on your playlist between the latest installment of ABC News and your favorite Alicia Keys video.

In this new alternate universe, maybe the masses would take to downloading Nessun dorma for 99 cents or an act of Turandot for $2.50.

Meanwhile, let's take a look at the remaining Met At the Movies lineup for 2006-07. All these HD broadcasts will begin at 1:30 p.m.:

January 6 -- I Puritani. The sensational Russian soprano Anna Netrebko is an eyeful herself. That's why I'll be sure to have my opera glasses trained on her when I see her live at Lincoln Center this Saturday night as the fragile Elvira in Bellini's melodrama.

Vocal fireworks explode when bride-to-be Elvira is abandoned at the altar. You can see Netrebko bigger-than-life at the Regal Stonecrest in the same mad scene that helped build the legends of Beverly Sills and Maria Callas. OK, it's not sung in English, but the music lingers on more than twice as long -- and the super titles figure to be even more convenient than those at the Met.

January 13 -- The First Emperor. Placido Domingo introduces his first new role at the Met in the world premiere of Tan Dun's three-hour-and-20-minute epic. Opera-phobes needn't fret since Tan Dun, far from carrying the reputation of a cacophonous modernist, was the composer of the acclaimed film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

We journey back to the ancient court of Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor of China. Domingo sings the role of the Emperor who unites China and builds the Great Wall. The ageless tenor is undermined on the domestic front by Paul Groves as Gao Jianli, the court composer. Gao defies the Emperor and seduces his daughter, Yueyang, sung by Elizabeth Futral.

No, we won't need to watch Domingo attempting to master Chinese. Obligingly, National Book Award-winning novelist Ha Jin is a co-author of the English language libretto. Academy Award-winning costume designer Emi Wada will dress the court.

February 24 -- Eugene Onegin. Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky will star in the title role of Tchaikovsky's tale of youthful pride and passion -- followed by sobering realization and regret. I've just seen Hvorostovsky as Posa in the Met's current production of Don Carlo, which grew stronger and more impassioned as the evening wore on. Until nearly midnight after a 7 o'clock curtain!

If Hvorostovsky can match his devastating co-star for silky vocal smoothness, this will be an afternoon to relish. I speak of the serenely lovely Renée Fleming as the ingénue. Compared to Verdi's Carlo, Pete's Onegin is a relative minnow in length, clocking in at just over three hours. The production also features tenor Ramon Vargas and famously half-shaven maestro Valery Gergiev.

March 24 -- The Barber of Seville. Peruvian hotshot Juan Diego Florez sings his signature role of Count Almaviva in Rossini's most famous comedy. Viewers at the Regal Stonecrest won't need to endure an old threadbare version of this perennial favorite. Bartlett Sher to the rescue!

Across the plaza at Lincoln Center, Sher and his prestigious design team were instrumental in elevating The Light in the Piazza to Tony Award glory a couple of seasons ago. Now they hopscotch from Florence to Seville to bring fresh vitality to Almaviva's ardor and the wily Figaro's machinations. Three hours and 10 minutes of glorious comedy and melody.

April 28 -- Il Triticco. Puccini for the masses! Tony Award-winner Jack O'Brien directs yet another new Met production. Trittico can pack a cornucopia of melodrama, pathos, comedy, and inspiration into a single afternoon of opera because Trittico is actually three one-act operas collected together.

We go from the melodramatic to the divine in the first two acts, Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica. Puccini then lets us relax with the comedy of Gianni Schicchi, featuring one of the most familiar arias in all opera, "O! mio bambino caro."

The full traversal from jealousy to murder to suicide to religious rapture to scheming young love and intrigue will take a full three hours and 35 minutes. Not bad value for your $18 ticket. In fact, you can take in all six operas in the Met At the Movies series for less than the cost of a single prime orchestra seat at Lincoln Center.

With a few big tubs of popcorn tossed in for good measure.

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