- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Nothing quite like it ever has been done before: a free simulcast of a live matinee performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme” by the Washington National Opera to be beamed by satellite to a total of 19 colleges and high schools across the country as well as to two local theaters and the Mall.

On Sept. 23, four months to the hour of yesterday’s formal announcement of the plan, Placido Domingo, the opera’s general director, will step onstage at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House and introduce the event against a backdrop of banners from participating schools.

At that moment, audiences outdoors on the Mall, indoors on campuses from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to the University of Washington in Seattle, and at the AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center in Silver Spring and the Old Town Theater in Alexandria will all share the delight of seeing an updated version of the classic opera sung in Italian.

The ambitious undertaking is believed to be unprecedented in its scope, even in Europe, Mr. Domingo said privately after a press conference led by WNO President Kenneth Feinberg. Funds for the project, an estimated $500,000, are being raised from foundations and contributions by the opera board of trustees, headed by John Pohanka.

Spokesmen for several of the educational institutions were present and spoke with passion about the initiative.

“It’s wonderful to bring to youth this opportunity,” Mr. Domingo said, noting with a smile that a younger generation who saw “Rent” will have an opportunity to see its predecessor, Giacomo Puccini’s celebrated opera “La Boheme.”

In its contemporary version of “La Boheme” — a co-production with Teatr Wielki of Warsaw, Poland — WNO will transform the central character, the writer Rodolfo, into a photographer to connect with younger audiences, Mr. Domingo said.

The outreach effort, a major one forWNO, is intended to raise the company’s national profile and “broaden the base of opera lovers everywhere” at a time of general cutbacks in musical education programs in schools, Mr. Feinberg said, adding that a simulcast really is second-best to experiencing opera live and in person. Company officials also hope the event will help attract new funding sources for one of the world’s most expensive art forms.

Mr. Feinberg called the concept an experiment but one that could be replicated in the future and include many more schools, colleges and community groups. The high schools involved are in San Francisco and in Brockton, Mass. The closest college taking part is the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. However, more schools may be added before fall. WNO is supplying explanatory materials to participants, including CDs that can be copied for use by students, ideally ahead of the performance.

WNO also announced that XM Satellite Radio is scheduled to present some of the company’s archival performances over the next few weeks. A holiday opera, “Hansel and Gretel” — with artists from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program — will be presented at the District’s Lincoln Theatre in Northwest with lower ticket prices for families.

“Over 13,000 people came to the National Mall for the opera’s simulcast production of ‘Porgy and Bess’ in 2005,” Mr. Domingo said. (Last year’s “Madame Butterfly” simulcast took place on a rainy day, depressing audience numbers.)

“Children do not know what it is — opera, and I wish music education would be mandatory — so we have to do it ourselves in a new way,” the renowned singer-conductor-director said, calling the scheduled multicity offering “one of the most fantastic things to happen to our company.”

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