Helping high C's go high-def at Lyric

The Baltimore Sun

On Sept. 22, Baltimore's historic Lyric Opera House will become the Lyric Opera-in-High-Def-Simulcast House. That night, thanks to an initiative by the Baltimore Opera Company, the season-opening gala at the Metropolitan Opera in New York will be beamed into the Lyric's 2,400-seat auditorium, as it will be in venues around the country.

Ten full opera productions from the Met will be shown at the Lyric, transmitted via satellite, between October and May. The great majority of the Met's simulcast venues around the country and beyond are regular movie theaters, where the Met introduced the concept two years ago with considerable fanfare and success.

It's one thing for a modern multiplex, with all of its built-in audio and visual equipment, to get in on this, but quite another for an 1894, non-stadium-seating, non-popcorn-machine-pumping opera house. (Plans call for movie-type concession stands and a waiver of the no-food-or-drink-inside-theater rule for the Met simulcasts at the Lyric.)

Spearheading the technical side of this Baltimore Opera venture is Chris Van Alstyne, the company's production manager since 2006. Last season, the company's production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly used projected computer graphics, as will a production of Verdi's Aida in October. The same projector employed in those performances will be in service for the Met simulcasts.

With his long, curly hair and mini-chin beard, Van Alstyne might be mistaken for a college kid, but the 46-year-old native New Yorker brings considerable expertise to the tricky business of giving the Lyric a high-tech makeover. He talks about that challenge and how he came to be here for it.

In his own words I was a voice major in college. I wasn't very good. I was going to drop out, but my girlfriend talked me into staying. She was in theater, and I got a job building sets. [He went on to earn a master's degree in technical design and production from Yale University.] I worked for Boston Ballet, and I was technical director for Cirque du Soleil on a North American tour for a couple of years. I lived in New Zealand for six months. I came back and worked on a touring show. Theater is all about learning and moving on, but I got tired of living out of a suitcase. I was looking for a home. I decided to settle in Baltimore.

It definitely has not been boring since I joined Baltimore Opera. We do 16 performances a year. With Cirque, I did 380 in one year, and I'm busier here. But it's very rewarding.

Projection power There are so many different concerns when you are trying to do something like the Met simulcasts - the type of projector, the type of screen, the type of feed. With us, there's an added kind of twist to it. We're looking at things we need to do for the simulcast that we can also take advantage of for our own productions. Baltimore Opera is in a partnership with the Lyric in this; we're a tenant in the building. We're making permanent installations - a satellite dish, cables to the building, a control rack in the technical booth. We're installing a large screen that will have to go up and down for each simulcast. Right now, I'm trying to get a handle on what we still don't know. Summer vacation is over for everybody, so we can work on finishing the installations. At the same time, the Lyric is updating its sound system. It's going to be state of the art. I'm sure a typical audiophile will be pleased. The total cost, not including the sound system, will probably be between $100,000 and $120,000. The Abell Foundation has been a big friend in helping to fund this. The high-def, 22,000 lumen projector cost $80,000. It could give you a suntan if you were sitting in front of it. We had to make sure it had the right output for brightness and resolution.

Big toys At Cirque de Soleil, I was used to seeing some big toys and unbelievable effects. We're a small opera company playing with big toys, all cutting-edge stuff. I would consider myself highly trained in my field, but I find myself having to call up people to ask questions. There's the decryption equipment, satellite receiving equipment and the actual dish. Along with that you have to have Internet access and a contraption called a "sling box" [a streaming device] that allows the folks at National CineMedia [company handling Met simulcasts] to monitor our equipment to make sure the feed is accurate. There are tests two weeks out, two days out and two hours before each simulcast to make sure everything is working right.

Double challenge Our opening night of Aida is Oct. 11, and that same afternoon there will be a Met simulcast of [Strauss'] Salome. We will test the projector for the 1 p.m. Met opera, run the show, then get everybody out and re-run the test for Aida.

Tickets to the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts at the Lyric Opera House go on sale Aug. 22. For more information, call 410-727-6000.

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