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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 15, No. 1

Live in HD Breathes New Life into the Met

by Crystal Chan / September 1, 2009

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For some companies, scaling back new initiatives has been the answer to the global economic crisis. The world’s leading opera company, on the other hand, has found a solution in doing exactly the opposite.

After the recession hit, millions of dollars were slashed from the New York Metropolitan Opera’s 2008-2009 season and millions more from the original budget for 2009-2010. Since last November, General Director Peter Gelb has put a 10% pay cut on his $1.5-million salary, senior management, and administrative support staff. Ultimately, however, it has been the investment in the Live in HD series that has proved to be the “one bright spot during the current economy,” claimed Gelb.

Live in HD screens select Met operas in movie theatres from 36 countries, initially in live transmission broadcasts, which are then followed by encore presentations. The operas chosen for broadcast are handpicked to serve as a microcosm of the regular season; displaying the breadth and variety of repertoire and cast is a top priority. Next season opens October 10 with Tosca, followed by a more historic production of Aida, then Turandot, Tales of Hoffman, Rosenkavalier, and Carmen. Next up is a production of Simone Boccanegra featuring Placido Domingo’s debut in the title role, followed by a somewhat esoteric production of Hamlet, which the Met audience hasn’t seen and serves as a vehicle for Simon Keenlyside, the great theatrical opera artist, and also stars Natalie Dessay as Ophelia. The season will wrap up with a Renée Fleming-led production of Armida.

The series was risky at first but broke even in ’08-09, its third year, with an average of 140,000 tickets sold per show. As the economy continued to fizzle, people took more interest in bargain-priced opera and the Met’s 50% share of sales (the other half goes to the cinemas) soon soared to a high enough point this year to actually generate profit. This spring’s Madama Butterfly, for example, attracted more than 200,000 in live audiences, with an additional 50,000 coming from encores. An astounding one-and-a-half million tickets for Live in HD were sold this season in total.

What’s more, once the Met has the video content created they can repurpose it for sale to television and commercial record companies, which distribute it on DVD. “One of the great successes of our movie theatre transmissions has been the positive aspects of audience members experiencing the Met performance live together,” affirmed Gelb. “This flies in the face of what current technologies are seemingly moving towards – the individual alone at home, connected to their computer screen. But by the same token we’re pushing to explore other distribution services, including digital – people can sign up and have a vast amount of content available to see or hear on their computers.” Launched last fall, the Met Media Player is an online service linking paying subscribers to high-quality streaming video and audio. “There are about 2,500 people subscribing to it. I think it will explode when the internet delivers content directly into your home entertainment system. It is possible now, but most people don’t use that.”

Add to that the special-purpose funding that donors earmark specifically for this project, and Live in HD was a significant source of revenue for the Met this year.

Gelb is quick to point out, however, that such a project is not for every opera company. Live in HD builds upon the millions worldwide who already tune in each week for the Met radio broadcasts. “The Met is the closest thing to a National company – sort of North America’s Opera Company,” said Gelb. “We knew we would have enough audience at the start. There’s no other opera company that has that type of global brand.”

Yet no opera company in the world can save itself through ticket sales – not even the Met. Costs such as satellites, TV cameras and distribution can be sustained through ticket sales. However, ticket revenues can never fully pay for the Met’s actual production costs, even as the Met regularly sells out its shows. Unlike in Canada and Europe, the Met receives no government funding. Opera companies hoping to jump on the cinematic bandwagon, Gelb warns, will have a tough time even if they can attract audiences, unless they are able to use the program to attract more individual and corporate sponsors.

The Competition
While the Met Live in HD continues to soar, other HD opera screenings aren’t doing so well. Pre-recorded La Scala and Salzburg Opera screenings distributed by Emerging Pictures in North America found a ready audience two years ago through four independent cinemas in Montreal including the Cinema Beaubien. Last year, the group expanded to 16 theatres, but the response was disappointing. This year, several theatres have dropped out, putting the series in jeopardy. Stay tuned for more details.

The ‘09-10 programming of Live in HD reflects this hesitation: despite its success, the Met is stepping back from this year’s schedule of 11 productions. Delivering high-quality transmissions is not simply a matter of turning on a bunch of cameras: every show requires different camera placements, camera scripts and other adaptations for filming live performances. The time and resources available to the Met have been stretched too thin for it to offer more than nine broadcasts this season.

When it comes down to it, the Met is quick to embrace the Live in HD series as a complement to their standby initiatives rather than as their new focus.

“We’re not in a situation where we can undermine the ability of the Met to produce live performances: that’s our core business,” said Gelb, who also emphasized that the radio broadcasts will not be replaced by the HD. “The best part of Live in HDis that they have helped us to get people interested in experiencing the Met opera, not only in the movie houses but in the opera house as well.”

The MET Live in HD tickets are now on sale at Cineplex theatres across Canada and online at www.cineplex.com. New this year: reserve seating.

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