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Last summer’s rains made for a few unfortunate washouts with outdoor festivals, but one notable cultural event of the season went off just as planned, weather undeterred: in July, Middlebury saw the grand reopening of Town Hall Theatre following its extensive decade-long, 5 million dollar reconstruction.

True to the vision of the redesign the Theatre has since become a busy center for community activities, hosting events private and public, ranging from an indoor farmer’s market to weddings, art exhibits in the downstairs gallery space, yoga and dance classes in the adjacent dance studio, and staged productions of all kinds in the 225-seat theatre upstairs. A compact yet very versatile and fully accessible modern space – invaluable attributes, in times where fiscal viablity calls for just that kind of ingenuity and flexibility! 2009-mar07-middleburyevent02

One of the ways Town Hall celebrates its new life this season is in becoming one of only three theatres in the region to host live, High-definition broadcasts of performances from the Metropolitan Opera. Yesterday’s event was Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ (in the modernized, 2006 Minghella production).

It was my first time visiting Town Hall Theatre and one of my best experiences at the HD opera performances so far. I give equal credit for that to the richness of the production itself and the high quality of the Theatre’s audio system, which allows for a full experience with the wide range of demands in the music’s dynamic nuances.

In thinking about yesterday’s HD opera experience I have to go back to a year ago when I was at the Metropolian Opera for its annual ‘broadcaster’s weekend’. For two days, representatives from affiliated TV and radio stations from all over the world gathered to learn about new initiatives and programs, hear about the Met’s future broadcast plans, and visit with each other and staff from the Met.

The conference began on Friday morning with a lively, impassioned opening address by General Manager Peter Gelb. He was still fairly new to the position at that time (having become the GM in August, 2006) and the forum was the perfect opportunity to share the scope and details of his vision for the company with some of us industry folks who are charged to help to carry it out on a day-to-day and weekly basis.

For a little over an hour Gelb outlined his impressive and comprehensive plans to work with area gradeschools and museums to integrate aspects of Met productions into teaching curricula and regional visual and audio artistic efforts. He spoke of the Met acting in a mentorship role, by collaborating with nearby music institutions like Julliard to help ‘grow’ upcoming talent, and in working with visual artists and writers to update classic productions and/or create new ones.

On the international front, Gelb described the terms of the partnership the Met currently has with the English National Opera to commission new works: the Met foots the tab on the commission, oversees all aspects of the work’s creative and artistic development, and in trade for being a sort of ‘test kitchen’ for new Met productions, the E.N.O. gets to share these brand new productions with their audiences with very minimal financial risk. Met audiences benefit in getting to see new productions that have been run through the rigorous development and finetuning process: by the time the new show has had its run with the E.N.O. and hits the world’s most famous raked stage, there is some insurance it will already be polished gem.

Gelb completed his vision by outlining the many efforts the Met is undertaking to shine a little populist light into its rarified red velvet arena, by making the unique Met opera experience more accessible to more people. Not to worry, those iconic Swarovski chandeliers aren’t going anywhere (except up, at curtain call). The kind of light the Met is letting in comes from the doors opening a bit wider: they are offering blocks of free tickets for school-aged students; discounted ticket rates and informal ‘blue jean’ performances for everyone; and holding occasional open rehearsals. Imagine – “open” anything, at the Met! (There is a new admiral in town, Lt. Pinkerton!) How. Wonderful!

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It’s also in this refreshingly enlightened ‘more the merrier’ spirit where the Met’s live HD performances come in. The initiative started in the 2006/2007 season under Gelb’s new leadership, with six HD performances. The following season the effort expanded to eight HD performances in both domestic and international theatres, and this season the number has grown to 11 HD productions, including yesterday’s “Butterfly” production and several others over the next couple of months.

Town Hall Theatre is the newest venue to host the Met’s HD productions, but the live matinees (and some encores!) can also be seen at Palace 9 Theatre in Burlington and The Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College through the end of season.

As I sat in the darkened auditorium yesterday at Town Hall enjoying a prime view of the large HD screen from the steep stadium seating, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought that Peter Gelb’s inclusive vision for the Met was being carried out here – in Middlebury, Vermont – in a newly refurbished theater which had, just a few days ago, been the site of one of America’s most emblematic of populist traditions: Town Meeting Day.

It just doesn’t get more democratic than that.

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