Free 'La Boheme' simulcast aims to reach young people

Next September, a Washington National Opera performance of Puccini's evergreen La Boheme at the Kennedy Center will be seen simultaneously by audiences at high schools and colleges around the country, as well as outdoors on the Mall and in two D.C.-area movie theaters -- all free of charge.

"Everybody is trying revolutionary ways to bring opera to more people," Placido Domingo, the famed tenor and general director of the WNO, said yesterday in an interview at the Kennedy Center. "This is terrific. It gives us phenomenal opportunities."


The company's La Boheme, a co-production with Poland's National Opera in Warsaw, will update the story of 19th-century bohemians and artists to contemporary times.

"In this production, the poet Rodolfo will be a modern photographer," Domingo said. "I think students will identify with these characters and our young cast."


The one-time simulcast, a Sunday matinee on Sept. 23, will cost more than $500,000, half of that for the Mall simulcast, about $15,000 for each additional feed.

So far, 19 colleges are participating in the project, including Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, the University of Alabama, West Point and the University of Washington.

Two high schools, in Massachusetts and California, are also on the list. "It is entirely possible that we will add additional schools," WNO board president Kenneth Feinberg said.

Carolyn Barber-Pierre, assistant vice president for student affairs at Tulane University in New Orleans, greeted the project enthusiastically. "I know this is going to inspire our students," she said. "At Tulane, we are committed to helping our city come back, especially in the arts."

The AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring and Old Town Theater in Alexandria, Va., will offer the La Boheme simulcast as well.

The company introduced simulcasts to the Mall three years ago with a performance of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. "That was the thing that really got us going," said WNO board chairman John Pohanka, "having all those people out there standing and cheering -- 13,000 of them. It was the damnedest thing I've ever seen."

That initial success led to the expansion of the simulcasts, with a particular aim of reaching young people.

"We are really responsible to build a new audience for opera," Domingo said. WNO "really needs another generation to be our leaders and our public."


Domingo said the costs of funding the simulcast would not strain WNO's budget. "Of course, you need every cent that is possible for the company. But we believe that we have to be part of all these new things happening in technology," he said.

Feinberg said, "The board believes we have a mandate to take quality opera -- and a great opera company -- and make it available to local communities. And we hope this will get the attention of donors and corporations so we can continue offering this in the future. Frankly, this is about fundraising."

If all goes well, there could be a second mass-simulcast as early as next spring, a performance of Verdi's Rigoletto.

"I certainly hope it will expand," Domingo said. "Maybe three or four operas every season."

In addition to the simulcasts, WNO will soon reach new listeners through nearly two dozen archival recordings of live performances that will be aired on XM Satellite Radio in coming weeks.

(The Metropolitan Opera in New York, which broadcasts regularly on Sirius Satellite Radio, made international news this season with simulcasts of performances beamed in high definition to well-attended movie theaters in several countries. The Met's movie showings, which have an admission fee, will increase in number next season.)


"We cannot deliver opera in the 21st century without taking advantage of changing technologies," Feinberg said.

Domingo, who has yet to master using the Internet ("And I don't want to," he said), expects opera fans to benefit continually from communication advances.

"One day, every performance will be broadcast somewhere," he said. "I would not be surprised to see, in five years, people getting a simulcast at home from London, or one of our performances being simulcast in Italy."

The tenor was quick to point out one limitation of a simulcast.

"Don't fool yourself, and don't fool anybody else -- nothing is like a live performance," he said. "But a simulcast is close."