Local cinema broadcasts may be the new face of opera
by Alan Sherrod
No one can ever argue that music and theatre surrender their traditions easily. Both forms are stuffed to the clefs with curious jargon, instruments, and machinery that have changed little over the years, and time-tested ways that are as comfortable as an old pair of shoes. But every so often change does comeâ"change that challenges the long-held assumptions of both performers and their audiences. And this time the change has come from that bastion of tradition itself, the Metropolitan Opera.
In August 2006, when Peter Gelb, the 52-year-old record producer and former president of Sony Classical, took over the reins as the Metâ’s general manager, he promised to â“build on the Metâ’s great strengthsâ” while reconnecting the company to a broader public. One of several reconnections he instituted was the live high-definition video broadcast of Met performances into select movie theaters around the country. Gelbâ’s plan was that the broadcasts would do for modern audiences what Saturday matinee radio shows and the Metâ’s regional tours had done to inspire potential opera lovers in the past.
Has it worked? The answer seems to be a resounding yes.
With the December 2006 Saturday matinee performance of Julie Taymorâ’s shortened version of Mozartâ’s The Magic Flute, the Metropolitan Opera launched a series of broadcasts of six productions from the 2006-2007 season in 100 movie theaters across the United States, Canada, Japan, and several European countries, including Great Britain and Norway. Forty-eight out of 60 U.S. theatersâ"including venues in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Miami, and Washington, D.C.â"sold out prior to the broadcast. This seasonâ’s series of eight productions in high-def opened on Saturday, Dec. 15 with Charles Gounodâ’s RomÃ©o et Juliette, starring Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna. Box-office returns indicated a North American audience of 77,000 for 477 screens (121 of them sell-outs), with an additional 20,000 tickets sold overseas.
Naysayers had predicted that the live HD broadcasts would herald a precipitous decline in ticket sales for the Met and maybe even falling interest in local opera productions. Similar remarks were heard during the years the Met conducted its U.S. regional opera tours: How could local opera companies hope to compete with the lavish productions and deep pockets of the Met?
But times change, and apparently the HD broadcasts are having just the opposite effect. At the Met, total ticket sales rose 7.1 percent in the 2006-2007 season, and local opera companies have reported that the HD broadcasts have seemed to bolster interest in their own productions among a younger segment of opera-goers and have incrementally increased their own ticket sales.
In Knoxville, the venue for the live Met broadcasts has been an auditorium at Regal Cinemasâ’ West Town theater. For RomÃ©o et Juliette, the theater was very close to a full house, with only a smattering of single seats unfilled. While much of the audience was, no doubt, made up of regular Knoxville Opera patrons, there were a few who seemed to be enjoying their first opera. And much like a typical theatrical audience, every age group was represented. Comments from audience members were variedâ"viewers enjoyed the clarity and detail of the HD image, the backstage intermission features, and the multiple camera angles. An overhead camera shot in the style of Busby Berkeley, however, did draw a few snickers.
Knoxville Opera Company General Director Brian Salesky says he thinks the HD broadcasts can work to the advantage of local companies: â“Anything that brings opera out into the public eye is a great thing for local companies as well,â” he says. â“There would have been competition only if we had been offering RomÃ©o et Juliette ourselves.â” And there wonâ’t be any such competition with KOCâ’s 2008 offerings, La Forza del Destino in February and Tosca in April. The Metâ’s broadcast season continues on Saturday, Jan. 12, with a production of Verdiâ’s Macbeth at 1:30 p.m., with five more broadcasts to follow through April.
One specific way in which HD broadcasts might impact tradition are in the acting ability of the singers and their physical appearance. In RomÃ©o et Juliette, both Alagna and Netrebko proved to be excellent actors, as well as being personally appealing and extremely attractive. However, the unrelenting (and unforgiving) clarity of the HD image may mean the demise of the infamous fat lady. Of late, modern opera managers have considered more than just voice when making casting decisions.
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