AT the end of "La Bohème," as Puccini envisioned the opera, the frail seamstress Mimi dies in bed in a garret overlooking the rooftops of Paris, attended by only her five bohemian cronies. As seen live on Swiss television in September, she boarded an empty bus from a curb outside a shopping mall, leaving not only her friends but an indeterminate number of onlookers. Then the bus pulled away, pursued for a time by her stricken lover Rodolfo until he collapsed on the pavement.
Saimir Pirgu, the young Albanian tenor who sang Rodolfo, found that tears came naturally. "When those doors closed, they weren't the doors of the bus, but the doors of life," Mr. Pirgu said recently in New York, where he was making his debut as the happy-go-lucky Rinuccio in the Puccini triple bill "Il Trittico." "Everybody cried. I cried."
And how weird was it to have people standing inches away from the action? "You really get into your role when spectators are standing right next to you, some of them in tears, some of them picking their noses," Mr. Pirgu said. "I've never had such an adrenaline rush in my life."
Wildly popular, "La Bohème im Hochhaus" ("A High-Rise Bohème") was the third foray by Schweizer Fernsehen, the Swiss national network, into prime-time opera programming. The first came in March 2007, with "The Magic Flute" on two channels, coupling a conventional telecast of that Mozart singspiel from the stage of the Zurich Opera House on one channel with simultaneous live backstage reports on another.
In September 2007 the cameras rolled for the more radical experiment "Traviata im Hauptbahnhof," carried live from the main train station of Zurich. Directed by Adrian Marthaler, the broadcast featured the orchestra, chorus and soloists of the Zurich Opera House. Viewers who wouldn't know Boris Godunov from Aida and might think of a soprano as a mob boss in New Jersey stayed glued to their television sets. Helping them along were plot updates at strategic intervals as well as documentary interludes for variety and human interest. (Both "La Traviata" and "La Bohème" are available on DVD through the Swiss network's Web site, sf.tv, which also offers clips from the shows. But there are no subtitles, and the commentary is in a salad of languages, including standard German, German dialect, French, Italian and English.)
"La Bohème," mounted in cooperation with the Stadttheater Bern and directed by Anja Horst, added layers of complication to the "Traviata" template. Rather than one sprawling soundstage, there were two: a low-income apartment house and a nearby shopping mall (designed by Daniel Libeskind). Apartments seen in the show were used as is, with residents as rehearsed extras.
The prime mover of the series was Thomas Beck. As director of music and dance for Swiss television, his mandate was to produce timely documentary segments for a 45-to-90-minute time slot every Sunday evening.
"I was always convinced that opera in prime time had huge emotional potential," Mr. Beck said recently from his office at the Bern University of the Arts, where he was recently appointed director. "When we started with opera, we thought we had a chance to bring high culture to a wider audience. For 'Flute' we were hoping for perhaps a 12-to-15 percent market share on the first channel and 5 to 8 percent on the second channel. We never dreamed we would double those expectations."
For the later shows the numbers were in the 30-to-40 percent range, and not for lack of choice. More than 80 percent of Swiss households are wired for cable.
Since the glory days of Verdi and Puccini, many have tried to package opera for the masses. Epic summer opera at the Roman arena in Verona (with a capacity of 150,000) has been a staple for nearly a century in Italy. Every so often an opera shows up in theaters as a feature film. Lately the success of high-definition broadcasts from opera house to movie theater, as pioneered by Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, has been grabbing headlines. But as a mass medium, television is in another league.
Perhaps the closest analogue to the Swiss experiments would be the visionary series NBC Opera Theater (1950-64), which presented, live and in English, a "Magic Flute" staged by George Balanchine, the premiere of Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors" and quantities of far more daring fare.
While designed for viewers new to opera, the recent Swiss productions have in their way been highly adventurous, beginning with the dark, uncompromisingly contemporary "Magic Flute" staged by Martin Kusej (available on DVD from Deutsche Grammophon).
"It was set in a labyrinth that was small and dark, like a prison, exactly the opposite of the fairy-tale fantasy most people expect," Mr. Beck said. "After the show we got over 1,000 messages and e-mails, mostly from people who said that they never go to the opera, that they weren't born into that class. But they had dared — they used this word — to take a peek at the backstage reportage and had become so fascinated that they switched to the main program and watched until the end."
"La Traviata" and "La Bohème," fundamentally naturalist works, were performed in a spirit of almost childlike make-believe, relying heavily on the viewer's imagination to connect (or disconnect) all the dots. Period glad rags were mixed with contemporary fashions, and there were "Rent"-style headsets for all, with audio feed and microphones built in.
In "La Traviata," rather than fuss with props, the players would at times make do with gestures, as in a furious card game between Violetta's rivals. (There were no cards and no table.) Conversely, in "La Bohème" props might be ignored entirely, as when Mimi and Rodolfo fretted over one blown-out candle though surrounded by dozens of other candles, all blazing bright.
To focus viewers' attention on the material rather than on star turns, the producers deliberately cast lesser-known artists who could disappear into their characters. Whether or not the prima donnas ever leap to the pinnacle of their profession, Eva Mei, as Violetta, and Maya Boog, as Mimi, took charge of their roles. The matinee-idol tenors cast as their lovers — Mr. Pirgu in "La Bohème," the impetuous yet lyrical Vittorio Grigolo in "La Traviata" — looked and sounded thoroughly ready for prime time and have big international bookings coming up to prove it. And while some of the artists resisted the idea of on-camera interviews in midperformance, Mr. Beck coaxed them until they consented: "We wanted viewers to see them as singing athletes, to emphasize that behind the opera and the roles are human beings with normal human feelings."
For Alexander Pereira, director of the Zurich Opera House, a high point came in the last act, when the trophy courtesan Violetta, destitute and dying, padded through the crowd in a mousy cardigan and bedroom slippers, warbling of her lost love.
"To feel her loneliness within that crowd of people, who were sniffling or snapping pictures on their smartphones, was very moving," Mr. Pereira said. His house, a magnet for international stars as well as a factory for new ones, seats 1,100 at prices that often top $350. But this time the show was free, and the best seats were in front of the small screen, at home.
"This was nothing like a traditional transmission, where there's an existing production and they bring in a camera and that's it," Mr. Pereira continued. "This 'Traviata' was created for television and could only be seen there. In an impossible environment we were able to create unique situations and to assemble new impressions in real time. People who watched it on site just saw tiny pieces of the puzzle."
Despite meticulous preparations and precautions, it all could have gone dreadfully wrong, Mr. Beck said. "Until the show ran live," he said, "we really didn't know if we could maintain a steady signal. We had hundreds of radio connections, microphones and cameras in play, all in a field of very strong high-voltage signals from the trains and heavy machinery. Besides, we had to think of the security of the singers out there in the midst of 3,000 to 5,000 people. And suppose someone called in a bomb threat?"
To general elation, everything came off without a hitch.
As expected, howls of purist indignation were heard, but not many. As Mr. Pirgu sees it, this is "opera for everyone."
"By everyone, I mean people who have never had a chance to go to an opera house," he continued. "If my mother went to the opera to see 'La Bohème,' she wouldn't understand it, and she's the mother of a tenor. This she understood perfectly."
So what else is in the works? In Zurich, the idea has been floated of a "Carmen Downtown," set in a working-class neighborhood, with local children drafted into the chorus. Mr. Pereira has no doubt that the formula has legs. "It would be easy to put on an 'Aida' in the zoo or 'Barber of Seville' in some Italian hill town. I think the series could go on for quite a while."
After "La Traviata," a thrilled chorister had another suggestion. "Now we know we can do anything," he said. "Why not 'The Flying Dutchman' at the airport?"