If you're an opera lover, you need to know about the Met Player. It's the Metropolitan Opera's new venture into web broadcasting, and went live last Thursday, October 22nd.

The idea is straightforward enough: you go to your PC, log into the Met Player site, choose an opera from their list, pay your money, and click a button: the opera plays on your PC (by "streaming", in the jargon), and you can pause and resume at will. The current list to choose from includes 50 operas on video (of which 13 are in the new "HD" (high definition) format, and 120 which are audio only. The pricing is very aggressive at $4.99 for an HD video and $3.99 for the others. (There's also a $15 per month unlimited use subscription suitable for frequent users).

So far, so good: there have been webcasts before. What makes this special is that if you have the right equipment set up (of which more in a moment), the quality on the HD transmissions is nothing short of extraordinary. The picture is vivid and seamless, and the use of a lot of close-up shots of the singers puts you right in the middle of the stage. I can honestly say that even in a live opera house, I've never appreciated the expression on the singers' faces quite as much: usually, seats are too far away, and opera glasses do help you get close, but at the cost of flattening the singers' features. If you have a decent audio set-up, Met Player is the nearest thing to a night in the opera house that I've ever tried, which at five bucks a throw, it makes for pretty extraordinary value.

Of course, the other advantage is that the Met get to choose some of the very best performances. We tried Rossini's Opera Buffa "The Barber of Seville", with Juan Diego Flórez and Joyce DiDonato in sparkling form as Almaviva and Rosina, Peter Mattei suitably larger than life as Figaro, and the show stolen by John Del Carlo as the devious, bumbling and ludicrous Dr. Bartolo. The sheer verve in Rossini's music was wonderfully rendered - not for nothing was he nicknamed "Signor Crescendo". Indeed, we scored a triumphant role reversal when my teenage daughter came upstairs to complain about the volume as one of the first act accelerandos hit its thunderous climax (How, she asked, could she quietly write rock music in peace with all this racket going on). The Met are also learning to add colour to their broadcasts, with occasional backstage shots and one glorious cut to the conductor, arms flailing as the music reached its fastest.

I'd already watched the promotional clips of La Bohème and I Puritani, which are at the same fantastic quality. The clip of Ramón Vargas and Angela Gheorghiu in La Bohème is a revelation of their acting and facial impression, and in their curtain calls, Gheorghiu is as coquettishly in control of the situation as her character Mimì, and Vargas is close to tears with all the emotion. If all of the HD productions are up to this standard, then Met Player is going to be transformational: an innovation which is truly able to bring opera to the masses. By the way, choosing an Opera Buffa is a good way to start those new to opera: my 12-year old son watched the whole thing with us with enormous relish, enjoying the comedy hugely as well as the music.

There is a snag, of course: you do need the right equipment. To use the High Definition video, you need a recent PC with plenty of processor and memory and a broadband link which delivers a real 2 Mbit/s download speed. The HD picture looks merely ordinary on a standard PC screen, whereas it comes to life on a wide-screen TV - and don't even think about listening to this on a conventional set of computer speakers.

At present, this set of requirements is going to be overly demanding for a large percentage of the potential audience. Many people will have a new enough PC, many will have an HD-capable television, and many will have a good sound system - but few will have all three in the same room and suitably interfaced to each other. The broadband quality will be a problem for some: many DSL links which advertise a 2 Mbit/s or higher bandwidth are subject to a "contention ratio" which means that your bandwidth is shared with other users, so you can't rely on receiving that level of transmission quality consistently over several hours. However, if you're a real opera lover, Met Player might well make you think about upgrading your PC and audio/video gear. At some point, I'll write an article about what you might need.

There are caveats, of course. The subtitling was a bit of an aberration: I'm a great fan of subtitles/surtitles for opera, but they really need to be at or outside the edge of the screen, not in prime picture area a quarter in from the bottom, and you do have to avoid white writing on a near-white background. We also had the occasional video jerk and spontaneous appearance of the player's menu.

But given the right equipment, this is a great service, and a cut above any previous video I've seen, either on the Internet or on DVD. I shall be looking forward to many more evenings of opera in my living room.

David Karlin 25th October 2008

You can get the player at http://www.metoperafamily.org/met_player