The Metropolitan Opera, the largest opera company in the United States, is struggling. Its ticket sales are way down – to 66 percent of capacity last season. Its general director, Peter Gelb, has had trouble with everything from labor negotiations to artistic vision. And its music director post, long filled only nominally by the once-glorious James Levine, is going to remain empty until 2020, when newly crowned successor Yannick Nezet-Seguin takes over.
But there’s one new initiative that the Met and Gelb appear to have gotten right: live HD broadcasts of performances to movie theaters. In 2006, when opera moved into the multiplex for the first time, it seemed like a daring risk. Today, the broadcasts are shown in more than 2,000 movie theaters around the world, to about 2.7 million people – bringing in about $18 million a season – and will reach the 100-performance mark with “Tristan and Isolde,” which opens the Met’s 2016-2017 season in September.
Still, 10 years on, the broadcasts remain controversial. They’re an easy scapegoat for the decline in opera’s audience: They haven’t drawn a significant new audience to the art form, and they appear to be an attractive alternative for people who might otherwise pay to see live opera. Some purists have said that the broadcasts – slickly packaged, with leaping camera angles and tweaking in the sound booth – aren’t really opera.
Like so much new media in this era of rapid technological change, the HD broadcasts haven’t actually fulfilled the rosy expectations that once surrounded them. It is far from clear that they are the wave of the future.
“There’s no money in it,” says David Gockley, who’s retiring this summer after 10 years as general director of the San Francisco Opera, with 33 years at the Houston Grand Opera before that. After an initial foray into live broadcasting to cinemas that proved nowhere near as lucrative as the Met’s, San Francisco now records and releases some of its notable productions on DVD with an in-house, state-of-the-art video suite.
“Certainly I think the HD gets people to focus on the Met,” Gockley says. “But it’s expensive. … And I think we agree that DVDs, their days are numbered, and even HD, the days may be numbered, and that streaming into the home onto devices is the way it’ll go. And a lot of streaming is free. And there’s a lot of operas on YouTube now.”
It was supposed to be like sports on TV. Network coverage of baseball, basketball and football didn’t cut down on the audience for professional sports; it vastly augmented it. When Gelb opened his tenure in 2006 with Anthony Minghella’s production of “Madame Butterfly,” broadcast live to Times Square, opera seemed about to become hip: 30-somethings suddenly expressed interest in buying tickets.
That proved to be a flash in the pan. Surveys have indicates that no more than 5 percent of the movie-theater audiences for HD broadcasts are new to opera, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the average audience is even older than the usual opera audience. The HD broadcasts appear to be catering largely to people who like opera already – and who are not buying tickets to see it live. Even Gelb has said that the broadcasts have cannibalized the Met’s audience.
There’s a widespread perception in the field that they keep people away from other companies, as well – although this is purely anecdotal.
“HD has drastically eaten into our business,” says Francesca Zambello, artistic director of the Washington National Opera. “Many people do not really understand the experience of ‘live.’ Most of those people used to be our regular audience … our mid-level donors, our hard-core subscribers. Now the Met and a few other theaters have devoured that entire middle tranche into their jaws.”
But she doesn’t have data to back up her claims, and many administrators disagree. “We haven’t (seen) a lot of impact in terms of market erosion,” says David Devan, general director of Opera Philadelphia, who says that 3 percent of his single-ticket buyers and 6 percent of subscribers also subscribe to the Met HD series. (One could argue that it’s the non-subscribers he should be asking.)
There are lots of theories about which companies feel the most pressure: smaller ones that can’t compete with the Met’s standards or famous singers, or larger companies trying to sustain a full season of operas. The Utah Opera, for one, sees the HD broadcasts as a benefit for subscribers who love the form. “The reality,” says Christopher McBeth, the company’s artistic director, “is that we present four, sometimes a fifth opera production each year. So there’s plenty of time between those productions for our audiences to thirst for other performances.”
Marc Scorca, president and chief executive of Opera America, takes a diplomatic view. “Almost all opera companies would say that there has been incremental diminution in live attendance, especially among the senior-citizen audience, that they would attribute to Met broadcasts,” he says – adding, though, that “there are dozens of other factors that contribute to the decline in audience.”
Scorca endorses the Met’s line that the disadvantages are outweighed by the benefits of the global audience. “I don’t know that the Met’s HD transmissions have discovered a new audience,” he says. But I do think that having this additional source of opera performance has had many positive outcomes.”
“We’re always a good excuse for those who aren’t doing well,” Gelb said in an interview last year. Including, evidently, the Met itself.
There’s also much debate about the broadcasts themselves. Everyone agrees that in terms of production, the quality is high: These operas go down as easily as popcorn. The question is exactly what they’re getting across. “It’s not opera,” says Speight Jenkins, the retired general director of the Seattle Opera. “Opera takes place in a room with energy moving back and forth between performers and audience, and this is not it.”
Not everyone feels so strongly about it, but many have seen the risk of broadcasts changing the art form. I’m far from the only critic who has said that stage direction at the Met has become more geared to cinematic detail than large gesture. The kind of close-up work the director Richard Eyre honed in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” a production I enjoyed from a seat close to the stage, could easily get lost if you sat too far back in the theater, but it came across fine on the movie screen.
Looking back over a decade’s worth of HD broadcasts, I found that some of the outrage was overstated – both my own and other people’s. It makes little sense to complain about opera on video as a medium at a time when it’s become commonplace. Most of the world’s major companies are making and distributing videos of their productions. The only difference at the Met is that it’s being done live. You can, of course, argue about the quality of the productions – but that’s a different debate, independent of the merits of HD broadcasts.
What HD has done, in exemplary fashion, is document a decade’s worth of productions. If you’re not sure what to think of the Gelb era at the Met, you can sign up for the Met’s online video channel and check out its highs and lows for yourself: Des McAnuff’s “Faust” with a rare-to-these-shores appearance by the star tenor Jonas Kaufmann; Paul Curran’s production of Rossini’s relative rarity “La donna del lago,” with Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez; Bartlett Sher’s leaden staging of Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore,” which not even Anna Netrebko can keep from feeling like a slog; or “The Enchanted Island,” a daring attempt to reanimate the Baroque tradition of the pastiche opera, complete with spectacle and superstars (Placido Domingo, David Daniels, DiDonato and others).
In some cases, the videos can serve as witnesses for the defense of Gelb’s much-debated tenure, as experiments that the critics came down hard on – such as “The Tempest” – prove to be quite inventive and delightful.
HD is no substitute for live opera. And my main complaint about the broadcasts has remained the same from the beginning: They don’t give an accurate sense of what the voices are like in the house. All the singers are equally easy to hear. This is, of course, a fundamental problem with most forms of sound recording; it fails to capture the thrill of the very biggest voices, whether it’s Birgit Nilsson, Dolora Zajick or Rosa Ponselle.
But what the Met’s HD broadcasts tend to do is try to deny that anything is missing. They want to turn opera into a form of cinema. In doing so, they get across a lot of the aspirations of these productions. But they also remove some of the magic of a form that is, in its live form, inherently unrealistic and over-the-top.
People fall in love with opera for the thrill. There’s a frisson to the act of singing powerfully: the inherent roughness and variability and high-wire risk of it. In smoothing over all of the bumps and differences, providing everyone on stage with a safety net, and trying to make it appear like just another form of theater, the medium of HD broadcast, as the Met has honed it into an art form, undercuts one of the prime things that leads many people to love opera in the first place.
The Met’s HD broadcasts are a forward-looking initiative; they have successfully made use of technology to spread the word of opera. But what they’re spreading is opera product: a fine documentation for those of us already hooked on the form, but without offering new young audiences the visceral thrill that will make them love it.