HDTV Opera Greeted By A Few Sour Notes In Chorus Of Praise

The first U.S. public viewing of a high-definition television production opened here last week to mixed reviews, technical difficulties and a picket line.

But by week’s end, the glitches, at least, had been eliminated, and over 700 people had attended the five-night run at the newly renovated Ed Sullivan Theater.

The taped show, an HD Pacific production of the Seattle Opera’s performance of Prokofiev’s “War And Peace,” drew decent notices from most of the New York dailies. The Daily News and The New York Times both mentioned the technical hangups but generally praised the opera; only New public York Newsday panned both the technology and the show, a four-hour depiction of the events leading to the Russian Revolution, featuring a Soviet-American cast of 250.

The April 23 preem, marking the 100th anniversary of Prokofiev’s birth, was fraught with problems, according to program co-producer Robin Willcourt. Opening night had the program simultaneously projected on two side-by-side 20-foot-wide screens, and the double image, Will court noted, troubled many people, “especially the opera critics.”

Subtitles projected between the two screens further distracted some observers. And Willcourt said that at one point the screens filled with video color bars.

Also, there were some inconsistencies involving the quality of the projection. Willcourt said part of the problem was that the high-definition image was being transmitted via an analog tape. He said that future performances will use a digital version. (Negotiations are underway to take the production to England.)

By April 25, the show, carrying a $25 admission, was running without a hitch. After a reported tirade by Speight Jenkins, head of the Seattle Opera, the show was projected on one screen only, with subtitles at the bottom.

Outside the theater, however, a different kind of problem was taking place as Local 306 of the Projectionist’s Union set up a picket line.

“They refused to employ our members,” said union spokesman Steve D’Inzillo. “We were told there was no need for attention to the machines once they were set up. Apparently that wasn’t the case.” He said he’s hoping to sit down with theater owner David Niles this week to iron out an agreement.

Niles, the HDTV producer and impresario who recently bought the Sullivan Theater, said only, “It’s a long story.”

Willcourt said he is negotiating with at least two companies for the homevideo rights to “War And Peace.” Homevid viewers will, of course, see an ordinary tv version of the show. Down-conversions from HDTV to NTSC and PAL broadcast standards are being done at NHK in Tokyo.

The production, which used six HDTV cameras, cost $750,000 to shoot. Postproduction expenses drove the total production cost to about $1 million, which Willcourt said still is cheaper than using conventional 35m film.

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