Oak Harbor Cinemas manager Rita LaBelle (left) looks over the Metropolitan Opera schedule with her “opera people” Clare Christiansen (center) and Carole Lafond before a Saturday performance. Photos by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

More than movies at Oak Harbor Cinemas

Opera lovers sing praises of special Saturday shows

Pastries cut, coffee poured, satellite reception checked, punch card at the ready.

It’s showtime on Saturday morning at Oak Harbor Cinemas, one of 2,000 movie theaters getting ready to live stream The Metropolitan Opera matinee performance from New York City to 350,000 viewers in 70 countries.

With a welcoming smile, cinema manager Rita LaBelle greets her “opera people,” about three dozen regulars from around Whidbey.

“I was not an opera fan until I started showing the Met operas,” she readily admits. “But now I know you can sit in there, you can cry, you can laugh, you can really feel the performance.”

The 1879 Russian opera “Eugene Onegin” by Tchaikovsky, is about to be beamed in live, up close and with impeccable sound.

Called The Met: Live in HD series, this is the second year Oak Harbor Cinemas is featuring the Met season, which runs from October through May.

America’s diva, Renee Fleming, serves as host to the distant live audience, interviewing stars between acts and explaining the plot.

She describes this opera, based on Pushkin’s poem, as a saga of ‘innocence lost and unrequited love.’

Plus the usual operatic elements of a love triangle, duel to the death, regret, revenge and a lot of Russian lost in translation.

After filling plates with daintily cut pastry and doughnuts provided gratis by LaBelle, Whidbey’s opera fans make their way into the dark theater, ready to peer into another production from the inside out.

Violinists check strings, stage hands arrange sets and singers get another dusting of powder in dressing rooms.

Every sight and sound is caught by the roving eye of the camera and on live mic.

Enormous costumes bustle and rustle, sweat beads on the brow of dancers, Maestro Robin Ticciatias closes his eyes in concentration, revealing a most undramatic dimple.

The baton drops. The curtain rises. Another world appears.

“I feel like we’re so lucky to have this in Oak Harbor,” Clare Christiansen of Coupeville says during one of two intermissions. “You’re part of a very special presentation that goes around the world. It’s better than being at the opera, frankly, because of all the close ups.”

Christiansen and others say they’d like more people to turn out for the opera performances, which cost $21 for adults and $17 for seniors, because they fear the program will be dropped for lack of participation.

“It’s a gift,” says Richard Hayes, attending with his wife, Jane.

“We used to live in Brazil and watch the live presentation there. We’re so lucky to have it here and the price is right — $17.” (As opposed to a $250 ticket to the actual Met, price of flying cross country, hotel, $10 pastry, $6 coffee, you get the idea.)

Another plus, no need to dress up.

“I rode my bicycle here from Coupeville,” said Charles Arndt, decked out in light blue Lycra. “I’m not always able to come because I’m a soccer Dad.”

Operas are part of special events offered by Fathom Events, a national distribution company. The cinema is owned by Far Away Entertainment, the independent family franchise that owns nine cinemas in small towns across Washington.

Oak Harbor Cinemas also feature classic movies at 7 p.m. on some Wednesdays. Upcoming oldies include the 50th anniversary of “The Graduate” (April 26), “Saturday Night Fever” (May 10), “The Godfather” (June 7) and “Some Like it Hot” (June 14.) It also hosts live events such as TED talks and sports.

LaBelle especially looks forward to the annual showing of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” around Halloween when she loses her voice from screaming and singing.

Modern-day blockbusters, of course, really fill the seats, three screens and cash box at Oak Harbor Cinemas. LaBelle is gearing up for the busy summer season, hiring more staff, many of whom are returning college students.

“All summer, it’s packed on weekends,” she said. “This past month, it was very slow until “Beauty and the Beast.”

This is LaBelle’s second turn as manager. She also ran Oak Harbor Cinemas from 1990 to 1999 “when it was in its heyday.”

She came back to the movie business in 2012 after working on escrow real estate closings.

“I’m in my element here,” she says. “I love the movies. I mean who doesn’t love the movie business?”

A grandmother of six, she’s a familiar face to generations of Oak Harbor movie-goers.

“Kids who came her in the 1990s, now they’re all grown with kids of their own,” she said. “Hundreds and hundreds of teenagers have come through here through the years.”

Technically, LaBelle’s job is a bit easier these days. No more editing together reams of film that once arrived in huge platters.

“Now, it’s all digital, we do it all electronically,” LaBelle said. “You don’t have the operator error factor like putting film in backward.”

She knows the theater is old, carpet worn, the lobby a 1970s throwback and menu offerings are standard candy, popcorn and pop fare. No fresh froufrou salads or organic, gluten-free, low-carb, soy dishes (she tried earthy, it didn’t sell.)

“We may not be fancy but we try and put a smile on people’s faces. It’s clean. We do clean our little hearts out here,” she says. “It’s an effective little theater.”

She has ideas, such as putting an espresso cart in the lobby and inviting schools to bring students to the opera when the season begins again in October.

The final Live in HD Met performance this season is May 13.

Marie Hamilton plans to be there as she has for every production the past two years.

“I saw my first opera at 10 years old,” said Hamilton, 78. “We lived in Philadelphia and my Dad would take me on a train to New York. Walking into the Met, it was like being transformed into another world. It’s hard to believe I’m watching it now in Oak Harbor.”

Four hours after the first note sounded at 9:55 a.m., LaBelle is wishing her opera lovers farewell (yes, they sat in the dark for four hours.) She tells them she’s already lamenting the last show.

“I’m going to miss you in the off-season,” she says. “I’ll be saying, ‘I need my opera fix. Where’s my opera people?’”

For information go to www.farawayentertainment.com/location/oak-harbor-cinemas/

Marie Hamilton checks out the pastries before the opera begins at Oak Harbor Cinemas on a recent Saturday morning. “I just love opera,” she says. “My father used to take me to the Met as a child.”

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