The Metropolitan Opera House seats 3,800. But through livestreams in HD, music lovers at thousands of theaters around the world have thrilled to the music at the same instant. And afterward the recordings are available online to enjoy again and again.
That’s a godsend to opera lovers during this coronavirus-riven moment in time.
UNC Greensboro alumna Sidney Dixon Weberndörfer plays a big role in making these broadcasts happen.
She serves as media production coordinator in the Met Opera’s Media Department. “I am kind of their resident musician librarian/archivist. I help them decipher the scores, I help them create the camera scripts.” She explains that many of them have TV backgrounds, so she complements that with her music expertise.
“We are all very hands-on, a close-knit work family,” Weberndörfer says. “We are all jacks and jills of all trades, pretty much.”
During the opera broadcast, she is in a media truck just behind the building on Amsterdam Avenue. In the truck is Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met Opera, the HD director, the associate director, and the score consultant. “And me who, during the HD transmission, serves as the script reader.”
The HD director calls the shots. He sees all the screens live, and can deviate from the script “on the fly” as he wants. The producers are sitting on a back bench, she says. And subtitle operators are feeding all the different languages out to the world. Ten cameras are operated by people during the shows. And a couple of remote cameras are being operated remotely from what her team calls “roboland” under the stage.
Weberndörfer has worked on these livestreams for the last nine seasons. Before that, she was a UNCG music major, studying voice.
“UNCG had a big impact in my life.”
She received her bachelor of music degree in 2009 in voice performance, with a minor in technical theater production. She studied under Dr. Carla LeFevre, with whom she still often studies.
She sang in a UNCG Opera Theatre production each season as a student, and was involved in Opera Greensboro’s “Amahl and Night Visitors.”
“My academic experience in the School of Music at UNCG was fantastic. It certainly prepared me to be able to handle New York and the job at the Met, where there’s high expectations.”
UNCG produces an impressive number of performers who sing on the world’s opera stages, including three other alumni who are full-time Met members. Others sing on occasion. “We just had a big UNCG reunion at the Met, basically. Several of my student-colleagues sang in productions this year.” Three in “Porgy and Bess,” one in Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten,” one in Puccini’s “Turandot.”
How did she get her foot in the door? She knew a camera operator who worked there, learned about an opening, and on her second day in New York City, she got the job as a PA (production assistant). She worked her way up from there.
That’s her day job – an outstanding one. But she also performs.
For Opera on Tap in New York, she is artistic producer as well as a performer. It was founded in the back room of a bar in Brooklyn – hence the name – and is known for engaging with audiences in a great variety of locations. “We often do shows in that very back room in that bar.”
It’s perhaps best-known for its playground series in Harlem each summer, she says.
And she sings in Utopia Opera, whose members, as they put it, “join together to create spirited representations of operatic works for the masses.”
She loves performing – and bringing art to many people. “It gives you hope, you know?”
She grew up south of the Triangle area. She was surrounded by music and other arts. Her father is Don Dixon, who played in the rock band Arrogance and was record producer for bands like REM and Smithereens. Her mother, Phyllis, is a music lover – she actually was the sound engineer for Arrogance. Her step-mother is singer Marti Jones. Her older sister, Bonnie, majored in dance at UNCG. “We were all artists, in my house. Everyone was very supportive.”
But opera? “I didn’t grow up around opera at all. I did grow up around music. There was singing all the time.”
So what turned her on to opera, a career turn no one in her family saw coming? “We think it was the movie ‘Amadeus.’”
She loved that movie. “At age 4, I was playing that movie on repeat.”
The here and now in New York City is rather bleak. Due to the pandemic, the Met Opera, like all performance spaces in New York City, is currently quiet. But she and her co-workers meet via the web each day, keeping each other’s spirits up, at a time when the city is currently the hardest hit by the pandemic in the nation. She rarely leaves her apartment, just when necessary.
The Met opera house at Lincoln Center is a magical place. She reminisces on her first time actually being in the auditorium during a live-stream. 2011, she thinks. She was near the camera very close to the stage.
“I’d never been inside the opera theater house. I’d never seen Wagner. I’d never seen The Ring Cycle. It was so many firsts. It was overwhelming, in the greatest way.”
The inspiration that the arts bring are essential during this time – perhaps more than ever.
“I think a lot of people are inspired by the free nightly streams by the Met on the web.”
The Met Opera website is currently offering a free viewing of a Met opera from its archives each evening at 7:30 p.m. This week, each night is Wagner. See details here.
Story by Mike Harris, University Advancement
Photography courtesy of Sidney Dixon Weberndörfer