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In his boldest and most far-reaching move since taking the helm of San Francisco Opera two years ago, general director David Gockley has announced a new agreement to begin worldwide, cinema-quality broadcasts of six of the company’s productions per year, beginning in March 2008.


The first round of broadcasts, all of which were recorded live at the War Memorial Opera House in 2007, will begin with Puccini’s “La Rondine,” starring soprano Angela Gheorghiu in the title role. Additional 2008 broadcasts will include Philip Glass’ “Appomattox,” which made its world premiere in a San Francisco Opera production in October; Saint-Saens’ “Samson and Delilah,” Mozart’s “The Magic Flute and “Don Giovanni,” and Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Dates and venues are still to be announced.


The four-year contract between S.F. Opera and high-tech company The Bigger Picture, a subsidiary of Access Integrated Technologies, Inc., marks the first time that any opera company will employ a feature film-quality digital format, said Gockley, noting that the new technology is a vast improvement over systems currently used by companies such as New York’s Metropolitan Opera.


“It’s a new chapter in this company’s life - and in the life of opera,” the general director said in an interview Tuesday.


Gockley estimated that the initial broadcasts will be shown in 200 U.S. theaters. International broadcasts will begin in the fall, in theaters throughout Northern Europe, Japan and China.


Tuesday’s announcement is the latest example of the ways technology is changing the way audiences gain access to opera - and the degree to which Gockley, who became the company’s general director in January 2006, is a force for that change.


Since coming to San Francisco from Houston Grand Opera, where he was general director for 33 years, Gockley has instituted several innovations. In May 2006, S.F. Opera presented its first free Plazacast, showing “Madama Butterfly” to an audience of thousands on a giant screen in the Civic Center. This fall, the company presented another live broadcast at AT&T Park; in the War Memorial, meanwhile, Gockley introduced OperaVision, which simulcasts the live performance on stage on retractable screens in the balcony.


But the jewel in Gockley’s crown is the Koret-Taube Media Suite, which the company unveiled in May. With all-digital, 2K capability and 5.1 surround sound, it is the first permanent, high-def broadcast and production facility installed in any American opera house.


The Koret Suite will allow the company to present the upcoming broadcasts in feature-film quality - a marked difference, says Gockley, from broadcasts such as the Metropolitan Opera’s, which are played on projection systems designed for movie house advertising rather than features.


According to Gockley, audiences will be able to see, and hear, the difference. “Absolutely,” he said Tuesday. “You’ll be able to discern it right away.”


The broadcasts will have an impact on multiple levels, he added. “I think in terms of imaging the company as No. 2 next to the Met, this clearly contributes to that,” said Gockley. “It will also make San Francisco Opera a more attractive place for singers to work.”


Perhaps most significantly, Gockley believes the broadcasts will attract first-time operagoers. “If people have seen our simulcasts, that’s a bridge into the company,” said the director.


This week’s announcement has been in the works since summer, says Gockley. Paving the way was a labor agreement with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) and American Federation of Musicians (AFM); the contract, which is yet to be ratified, includes supplemental media fees and revenue sharing by union members.


Gockley, a native of Philadelphia, noted that his first opera experience was in a movie theater. He was all of 10, and the singer was Mario Lanza in “The Great Caruso.” He says he vividly remembers the power of the great singer’s voice - and the feeling that he wanted to hear a live opera as soon as possible.


“He sang `Che gelida manina’ from `La Boheme’ and `E lucevan le stelle’ from `Tosca,’ and I realized I was getting chills,” says Gockley. “It was astounding. There was no basis for this in what I’d experienced before, and it touched me deeply.”

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