News and Features

The Metropolitan Opera Comes to Dallas ISD


Mariusz Kwiecien in the swaggering title role of the Met’s Don Giovanni

Students can now hear more than one opera company in the Dallas Arts District. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports the Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet High School is the only campus outside of New York with access to live performances by the Metropolitan Opera.

KERA radio story:

Expanded online story:

[excited chatter, crowd noises continue under]

It’s late on a Saturday morning. Students and teachers from all over Dallas have filled the cafeteria of the Arts Magnet High School to see Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It’s the first of four Met performances to be projected at Booker T this school year.

Devlin DeCutler’s the point man for DISD’s Metropolitan Opera program (below, he explains the ticket situation to Big Thought’s LeAnn Binford). The Townview High School choir teacher used to distribute 50 tickets to DISD students to see live screenings of the Met at local movie theaters. Now he has to gather about 400 students, from fourth-graders to high school seniors, for a live, high-def, satellite transmission. And since Don Giovanni runs three and a half hours, they’re also selling pizza and bottled water.

[DeCutler heard giving directions over the crowd noise]

It’s not as chaotic as it sounds. In fact, DeCutler says the real struggle in arranging these opera-casts was getting everyone in the school bureaucracy to sign off on them.

DeCutler: “There are an absurdly large number of people in Dallas ISD.”

The other hurdle was getting commercial cinemas onboard — because the Met’s four performances with DISD looked like competition for their own high-def screenings. With The Met: Live in HD, the opera company transmits its programs to 1,600 theaters in 54 countries around the world — to places like Russia, China and St. Thomas in the Caribbean.

Currently, the Met’s educational program provides tickets for those movie-house screenings to 25 school districts across the country. But DISD doesn’t get tickets anymore. It gets the same live feed as the movie houses.

DeCutler: “In essence, we had to convince these theaters that we’re not taking business away from them. These kids are not going to see one of these operas in the theater.”

But they may start – once they’ve seen them in school, once they’ve had teachers  explain their artistry and background– music teachers, English teachers, history teachers, even members of the Dallas Opera who will speak before each Met show. Gabrielle Dotson is a sophomore from Townview.

Dotson: “I love plays, I love seeing the arts in action. But this is going to be my first time seeing an opera.”

And they may end up a convert like Ricardo Jaramillo, who’s already seen several operas. The senior at Booker T has even decided he wants to sing opera.

[sound of  Don Giovanni comes up underneath, Mojca Erdmann as Zerlina and Mariusz Kwiecien as Don Giovanni sing “Là ci darem la mano”]

Jaramillo: “I think really right now, it’s one of the only arts where it really doesn’t matter how you look. I think I lot of these, like, new pop-culture stuff? It’s more about how you look. Opera, it’s more about performance and how it’s so amazing you can sing over a full orchestra. It’s just these voices are so powerful, and that’s what I want to do.”

The Met Live with DISD began because Edith and Peter O’Donnell of the O’Donnell Foundation in Dallas are fans of the Met. They learned about how  — in addition to giving tickets to schools across the country — the Met’s education program transmits its performances directly to five schools in New York.

The O’Donnells wanted Dallas students to have the same opportunity.

That entailed putting two new satellite dishes on the roof of Booker T — one for the feed, the other for backup — and a lot of new digital equipment in the theater. Brad Williams is the project manager for AVI SPL, the audio-tech firm that installed everything.

Brad: “We’ve got full HD projectors, we’ve got a 35-foot-wide screen that weighs almost a thousand pounds, it’s dropping down out of the ceiling with a full pan array of surround-sound speakers that drop down behind it. This thing is just absolutely amazing once it’s turned on and cranked up.”

Marsha Drummond, the Met’s director of education, says there are 100 schools on the waiting list to join the opera company’s ticket-distribution program. The Met plans on eventually having at least one school district in each of the 50 states. But, Drummond says, currently, there’s no other district anywhere that’s angling for the same kind of live-feed set-up that Dallas ISD has.

Obviously, that’s because of the cost (which no one would reveal). Dallas has the rare combo of the O’Donnell Foundation and Booker T — right next door to the Dallas Opera’s home, the Winspear Opera House. It’s not like the equipment, installation, transmission costs — plus DeCutler’s training in New York — add up to more than, say, the budget for the school district’s sports programs. Still, why all of this effort, equipment and expense – for opera?

DeCutler: “Oh, opera combines so much. Opera is literature, opera is poetry. Opera’s history. Opera is music, definitely. Opera is dance. Opera has elements of every subject and every art within it.”

[The conclusion of “Là ci darem la mano”]

It certainly has enough to quiet and enthrall some 400 students on a Saturday afternoon.

  • Suzanne Aberly

    Congratulations to everyone who made this possible for the students, lucky students!

    This is fantastic!