Jordan Levin

Movies of classic performances on South Florida screens this summer

Oberon, Titania and Puck in a moment from Julie Taymor’s film of her production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream
Oberon, Titania and Puck in a moment from Julie Taymor’s film of her production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream

Can’t make that artistic pilgrimage to New York this summer to see the Metropolitan Opera or England’s Royal Ballet (at Lincoln Center this week)? Wish you could catch Helen Mirren’s Tony-winning turn as Queen Elizabeth II in the hit Broadway play The Audience? Wanted to see Julie Taymor’s fantastical hit production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year? Or perhaps your taste in the Bard runs to the more traditional stagings at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in England?

Good news — they’re coming to you. Not live, but via gorgeously shot, high definition films of live performances screening in arthouses and multiplexes around South Florida. What began as an experiment with the Metropolitan Opera a decade ago is becoming a regular part of mainstream movie programming.

Proponents say it brings world-class troupes to audiences that would never be able to see them otherwise.

“If you can’t afford to see the Royal Opera or Ballet, you can see them in our venue, in an intimate setting at an affordable price, up close, in high definition, with stunning sound,” says Kareem Tabsch, co-director of O Cinema, which is featuring a series of films from the Royal Opera, Royal Ballet and the Globe Theatre at its Miami Beach venue. Offerings include Julius Caesar on June 28; Kurt Weill’s dark epic Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny on July 5; and famed ballerina Natalia Osipova in Swan Lake on July 12.

The films are a natural fit with O Cinema’s arthouse profile, says Tabsch. “The audiences who go see opera, ballet and theater are also audiences that see independent film, so it’s about cultivating this culture.”

The most innovative of these films may well be A Midsummer Night’s Deam, which screens on Monday (the summer equinox, or Midsummer’s Eve). Taymor, famed for her groundbreaking hit The Lion King, brought her avant-garde sensibility, as well as her experience directing films such as Frida, and movie versions of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and her own stagings of operas such as The Magic Flute, to bear on Dream.

She mixed live footage of her hit production of the play with Theatre For A New Audience in Brooklyn last year, with its lush design, gymnastic performances and fantasy atmosphere; then spent days filming close-ups and tracking shots in separate sessions, bringing the camera deep inside the show. Taymor also brought in award-winning cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and film composer Elliot Goldenthal (her collaborators on Frida), and spent weeks editing together hours of footage. The result is a true hybrid of film and theater.

“Ours was done really cinematically,” Taymor says. “You’re watching a play because you see a theater audience, but then you’re in the midst of the stage and in the midst of the action. This gives you all the best seats in the house. ... It’s very intimate, very immersive.”

Dream is distributed by Fathom Events, which largely launched the performance film genre with their Live at The Met series in 2005. That series has expanded from 37 to more than 600 theaters, and drew 700,000 people in the 2013-2014 season. While Fathom, which is owned by the three major U.S. movie chains, Regal, AMC and Cinemark, also distributes populist fare such as rock concerts and sports events, the performing arts have become a core part of its business.

“Live at the Met gave us a solid foundation of arts aficionados who proved the arts can be consumed in movie theaters,” says Fathom vice president of programming Kymberli Frueh-Owens. “Our core goal is to make the arts more accessible and mainstream.”

The company hopes to expand its Broadway offerings, and The Audience, which screens Thursday in South Florida, is part of that effort. And the success of its Bolshoi and Royal Ballet films, which run in about 400 theaters, has prompted the company to launch a series with American dance companies in the fall.

“We believe ballet could be a big category for us,” Frueh-Owens says. “You look at all the kids out there in ballet schools and gymnastics. We know there’s an appetite for international dance, and we think there’s a bigger appetite for U.S. dance.”

Some in the performing arts community worry that these films will cut into live shows. In his book Curtains? former Kennedy Center CEO and arts management guru Michael Kaiser argues that the cheaper prices and famous names in these movies will draw crucial audiences away from local troupes.

But those behind the new genre say these films will build audiences by introducing them to potentially intimidating (and often expensive) art forms.

“I’ve seen opera films with friends in their 20s, and then they say we’re going to go to Florida Grand Opera,” says Tabsch. “What these film versions allow is an easier entry point for people who still feel uncomfortable, for things that still have an aura of being elitist or inaccessible. I don’t ever see opera or ballet going away. I do see new audiences being introduced to it and diehard arts lovers being able to see new companies and the art form they love.”

As Taymor points out, none of these films would exist without the original shows.

“Live is live,” she says. “It’s part of the collective experience. You can’t replace the live experience with film or TV. But you can keep a hunger and thirst for it alive. Our little theater company, if we didn’t shoot it, you wouldn’t get to see it.”

If you go