Met Opera success propels ancient art form into a telegenic future

by Edward Ortiz

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

12 November 2007


The love affair between opera and digital technology is not only continuing—it’s growing deeper and more expansive.

The Metropolitan Opera will deliver eight—up from six last season—live, high-definition simulcasts of operas to movie theaters.

Nationally, the operas will be shown in almost 400 theaters—up from last year’s 100 theaters nationwide. The scheduled operas include Charles Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette,” Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth” and Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme.”

COMING TO A THEATER NEAR YOU ... Metropolitan Opera high-definition broadcasts planned for the 2007-08 season: “Romeo et Juliette”—Charles Francois Gounod 1 p.m. Dec. 15 Gounod’s hypersensual take on Shakespeare stays faithful to the play. Conducted by Placido Domingo, with Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna as the lovers. “Hansel and Gretel”—Engelbert Humperdinck 1 p.m. Jan. 1 Dark German realism meets abstract fairy tale in this new English-language production. Vladimir Jurowski conducts, with Alice Coote and Christine Schafer as the siblings. “Macbeth”—Giuseppe Verdi 1:30 p.m. Jan. 12 James Levine conducts this Shakespearean tale of power and ambition in a new production with baritone Lado Atanelli in the title role. “Manon Lescaut”—Giacomo Puccini 1 p.m. Feb. 16 Puccini’s deeply memorable opera of a woman’s descent from love to oblivion features soprano Karita Mattila as Manon. “Peter Grimes”—Benjamin Britten 1:30 p.m. March 15 A fishing village bears the weight of guilt and judgment in this new production. Conducted by Donald Runnicles, with Patricia Racette as Ellen Orford. “Tristan and Isolde”—Richard Wagner 12:30 p.m. March 22 Transcendent love defies even death in this much-anticipated revival. Wagner master Deborah Voigt is paired with tenor Ben Heppner. “La Boheme”—Giacomo Puccini 1:30 p.m. April 5 This revival of a popular Franco Zeffirelli production features new San Francisco Opera conductor Nicola Luisotti conducting a cast that includes Angela Gheorghiu as Mimi and tenor Ramon Vargas as Rodolfo. “La Fille du Regiment”—Gaetano Donizetti 1:30 p.m. April 26 Donizetti’s first comic opera features the coloratura of French soprano Natalie Dessay paired with tenor Juan Diego Florez in this new production. FOR MORE INFORMATION: Metropolitan Opera: (212) 362-6000, www.metopera.org. Tickets: Call participating cinemas for information.

The success of the simulcasts has prompted industry insiders to compare it to the popularization of opera that took hold 80 years ago when radio began broadcasting live Met productions.

That effort was credited with bringing opera to radio markets where opera was scarce or nonexistent. And it also sparked interest in regional opera companies.

That same ethos applies to the Metropolitan Opera’s live, high-definition simulcasts, said Peter Gelb, general director of the Met.

“The main purpose of this is to get people to come to the opera house itself,” Gelb said.

Last year’s simulcast experiment is bearing fruit in New York, with the Metropolitan Opera’s subscription base up by 12 percent from the previous year and its overall ticket sales up by 7 percent, Gelb said.

But the benefits of the simulcasts are not just centered on what can happen in New York City, he said.

Gelb said data from Opera America, the national service organization for opera, has shown that regional opera companies have benefited from the opera simulcasts.

“It’s too early to tell whether the broadcasts had an effect on us,” said Rod Gideons, executive director of the Sacramento Opera. The local season was mostly complete by the time most of the Met showings were screened, said Gideons. He added that this year will offer a better picture of how the simulcasts affect subscriber and single-ticket buyer patterns.

Last year, the Sacramento Opera capitalized on the simulcasts with the presence of a booth and promotional materials at each screening.

This year, the Sacramento Opera is taking a more aggressive approach by offering 30 discounted tickets for each Met opera screening at the Natomas location, Gideons said.

Those tickets will cost $15 and will be offered only to new subscribers or to new donors.

“We will try to build incentives to attract people in this area who are predisposed to attend opera,” he said. Gideons hopes to turn simulcast patrons into ticket buyers for his opera’s three-production season that begins Nov. 16 with Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello.”

Opera as a hot ticket at the cineplex is part of the sea change under way in the opera world, where several digital formats are being used to popularize the art form. Opera DVDs are now among the fastest-selling forms of classical music DVDs, and opera as a downloadable item on the Internet is seen as a foregone conclusion.

“Because of the technological revolution we all find ourselves in these days, it’s key for opera companies like the Met to capture this form electronically,” Gelb said.

In showing opera in Times Square and pioneering the opera-simulcast concept, Gelb has been at the forefront of melding opera’s storied past with its telegenic future.

Gelb is fond of talking about the Metropolitan Opera audiences as a “global constituency” and referring to its taped productions as “electronic souvenirs.”

The issue of what happens to a taped production after it is recorded is a crucial one for all opera companies. Industrywide, the sale of DVDs, downloads and pay-per-view offerings is considered a healthy new source of revenue.

At the Metropolitan Opera, this year’s simulcasts are expected to bring in more than 100,000 patrons for each opera simulcast. And once that simulcast is done, each opera is destined for a robust life as a DVD or as a video-on-demand product, Gelb said.

These new outlets put the Metropolitan Opera and others in a position they have never found themselves in—as sole distributor of their products.

“Times have changed, and it’s very important for the Met to be in a position to control distribution in every possible way,” Gelb said. “This is not dissimilar to when Hollywood rolls out a movie.”

His expectation is that 30 days after the last showing of an opera in theaters, the opera will be offered on cable as a pay-per-view or video-on-demand item, and, after that period of cable exclusivity, it will be shown on PBS and made available on DVD.

Other operas are following in the Met’s footsteps in seizing the potential of digital markets. The most notable and risky example came earlier this year, when London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden bought the company Opus Arte—a leading maker and producer of performance DVDs. That set an unusual precedent in the industry because it was the first time an opera company purchased a for-profit company for its marketing aims.

And the San Francisco Opera has become the only opera house in the country to install a state-of-the-art, high-definition video broadcast facility.

The potential that such technology offers became instantly apparent in May when the San Francisco Opera offered a free live simulcast of its production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at UC-Davis’ Mondavi Center. Tickets for the simulcast were snapped up quicker than any ticketed performance in the six years of presenting programs at the Mondavi Center.

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