By James Steichen
When the Metropolitan Opera launched its high-definition broadcast initiative in 2006, hopes were very high. The basic concept was simple: the Met would offer live cinema broadcasts of its Saturday matinee performances to a network of movie theaters around the country. For many decades the Met had offered such access to radio listeners, but now audiences far from New York could both see and hear their favorite Met stars from their local cineplex, for only about $20 a ticket, less than even a standing-room ticket at the company’s home at Lincoln Center.
Soon to enter their eighth season, the Met “Live in HD” has indeed emerged as the most successful initiative of the tenure of General Manager Peter Gelb, whose main goal has been to make opera a more popular and accessible art form. The HD broadcasts are the most spectacular aspect of this agenda and are now being screened in almost 2,000 movie theaters in over 60 different countries. The Met has also established a SiriusXM satellite radio station, as well as offering its own “Met On Demand” service with extensive online content.
But despite these innovative programs, Gelb’s record as leader of the Met, the largest performing arts organization in the country, has been rocky at best. Alex Ross of The New Yorker has repeatedly questioned Gelb’s artistic vision and institutional priorities, in particular the massive investment in Robert LePage’s elaborate “machine” for the house’s new production of Wagner’s Ring. Even the amiable Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times proposed not too long ago that Gelb hire an artistic advisor of some sort, a suggestion that has yet to be acted upon. (In Gelb’s defense, the artistic vision of the company has been significantly compromised by the failing health of music director James Levine, whose sporadic presence has left artistic leadership in a semi-permanent limbo.)
Amid such turmoil, Gelb has happily been able to point to the Met’s HD initiative has an undisputed success. Each year the broadcasts have brought in bigger audiences and more revenue, and for several seasons have been turning a profit. The cinemas that host the broadcasts are also quite happy with the results; with overall movie attendance in decline, they are grateful for the extra foot traffic, and popcorn sales.
But at the Met’s season announcement this past spring, Gelb made a somewhat stunning admission. While citing the continued success of the HD initiative in terms of attendance and revenue, he revealed that ticket sales at the Met’s actual performances had witnessed a decline. This was perhaps in part due to an ill-timed hike in ticket prices, which the Met has rescinded for the coming season. But Gelb shockingly posited an additional cause: the increased access to HD broadcasts were “cannibalizing” the Met’s live audiences.
It seems that even audiences with geographic access to the Met are increasingly opting for the mediatized Met over the live version. If even the powerful Metropolitan Opera can’t keep audiences coming in person, how does this bode for smaller regional opera companies, who now have to compete with the Met’s broadcasts in their own communities? In places such as San Luis Obispo, California, organizations are using the broadcasts as a means to identify new ticket buyers and donors, a model that other organizations would be well advised to adopt. Sports fans and pop music audiences continue to sell out live games and concerts despite the widespread availability of mediated versions. Can opera achieve this same success? For the time being, the answer remains to be seen.
James Steichen is a PhD candidate in musicology at Princeton University who is completing a dissertation on George Balanchine and the early history of the New York City Ballet. You can read more on his research into the Metropolitan Opera “Live in HD” in his Opera Quarterly article “HD Opera: A Love/Hate Story.”
Since its inception in 1983, The Opera Quarterly has earned the enthusiastic praise of opera lovers and scholars alike for its engagement within the field of opera studies. In 2005, David J. Levin, a dramaturg at various opera houses and critical theorist at the University of Chicago, assumed the executive editorship of The Opera Quarterly, with the goal of extending the journal’s reputation as a rigorous forum for all aspects of opera and operatic production.
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Image credit: Promotional web banner for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2013-14 Live in HD Season via metoperafamily.org. Used for the purposes of illustration.