Presiding over a makeover of the Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb, the general manager of the opera since August, has unleashed a multi-pronged tradition-defying blitz designed to attract new audiences. And it works.
Gelb’s invitation to the public to attend, gratis, the dress rehearsal of “La Boheme,” the opera season’s opener, attracted an overflow crowd. Passersby in Lincoln Center Plaza are now drawn to posters with perky new graphics, which replace the staid announcements of the past. Competition is intense for the unoccupied $100 orchestra seats on sale for $20 Mondays through Thursdays. These low tech initiatives could have been undertaken decades ago.
The high-tech innovations on Gelb’s agenda, however, were not possible until recently. Count among them the public simulcasts of the opening night gala to listeners in Lincoln Center Plaza and Times Square, the live and archival broadcasts on Sirius Radio, and streaming live performances on the Met’s web site, www.Metopera.org.
The pinnacle of the Met’s high-tech initiatives is the transmission of six live Saturday afternoon opera performances to more than 100 movie theaters in North America, Europe, and Japan using high definition technology. The local outlet is the Regal Theater on Route 1 in North Brunswick. Shows start at 1:30 p.m. (The series started on December 30 with a compact version of Julie Taymor’s puppet-peopled “Magic Flute” followed in January by Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Puritani” and Tan Dun’s “The First Emperor,” which will be repeated in participating movie theaters on Wednesday and Sunday, March 7 and 11). The series continues with Peter Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” on Saturday, February 24; Gioachino Rossini’s “Barber of Seville,” on Saturday, March 24, and Giacomo Puccini’s “Trittico on Saturday, April 28. The operas chosen for the series are intended to display the diversity of operatic styles and performers.
The HD transmissions incorporate the entire live performances — you see it as it’s being performed on stage in New York — along with English super-titles. At least 10 cameras distributed throughout the opera house and backstage transmit close-ups of singers and of instrumentalists, as well as standard and zoom shots of the performance from various angles. In addition, intermission features include live interviews and cogent background material.
The inspiration for the HD transmissions comes from Julie Borchard-Young, who is on special assignment at the Met to oversee the project. She and Gelb were colleagues at Sony International for more than a decade with Gelb serving as president of Sony Classical and Borchard-Young as senior vice president of international marketing, “developing and executing innovative marketing campaigns for artists of all genres.”
In 2003 Borchard-Young managed the launch of David Bowie’s album, “Reality.” As Bowie performed the entire album live in London the performance was beamed to 88 movie theaters in 26 countries. Borchard-Young concluded that if the combination of live performance and movie transmissions worked for Bowie, they would also work for the Met. She presented the idea to Gelb after he was named general manager at the Met, and Gelb invited her to oversee the project. The preparatory work took about a year. Reached by telephone from her office in New York, Borchard-Young describes, with gratified surprise, her successful foray into the unknown on behalf of the Met.
The movie theaters willingly backed the project, she says. “When I started calling, I had an enthusiastic response. I hoped for it, but I didn’t know what to expect. I had knowledge that movie chains were looking for a way to bring live events to their theaters.
The first three operas were transmitted to the 48 contiguous states; technology does not yet exist for showing HD transmissions in Hawaii and Alaska. European countries receiving the transmission were Britain, Norway, and Denmark. “Magic Flute” showed on 60 screens; “I Puritani,” the second opera, on 90; and “The First Emperor,” the third work, on 125. “We were thrilled that opera fans and curious patrons have gone to theaters and enjoyed the operas all around the world,” Borchard-Young says. Because of its enthusiastic reception the program is growing. “We’re adding partners in the U.S. and around the globe,” Borchard-Young says.
Borchard-Young calls the reception of the HD transmissions “beyond our wildest and loftiest expectations.” For the first three operas, ticket sales ranged from 67 percent of capacity to sold-out. “Those are extraordinary ticket sales,” she says, adding that encore performances of the live transmissions were scheduled. Presenting the movie operas is a partnership between the Met and the movie theaters, and revenues are shared.
Eager movie opera viewers are buying tickets in advance. Borchard-Young says that more than 60 percent of the movie seats were advance sales, and that buyers often bought tickets for more than one show. Typically, for regular feature films, only a third to half the seats are sold ahead of time.
The Met learned by E-mail that viewers were grateful to have opera productions that were affordable and easily-reached. In addition, E-mailers were pleased with the special intermission features that took them backstage to see what goes into staging an opera production, or gave star singers a chance to chat in their dressing rooms until it was time for them to go on stage. Borchard-Young calls the intermission features “fantastic added values.”
Another interesting fact that E-mail revealed was that the movie operas were attacting an audience broader than the upscale, relatively older crowd that attends live opera. The movies appeal to families. Patrons who sent messages said that they were buying tickets for children, grandchildren, and extended families.
Transmission problems were minimal. Borchard-Young was somewhat nervous about the Met’s inexperience with HD since it uses satellite technology only occasionally. She thought that sending the signal and downloading it to theaters would be a tricky operation. “We were pleased with the very small number of glitches considering the number of screens,” she says.
Present for one of the rare difficulties, Borchard-Young experienced the problem intensely. “I was in Westbury, Long Island, seeing “The First Emperor,” she says. “It was one of the few theaters that had problems. I panicked and time stood still. Ninety percent of the audience stayed in their seats, hopeful that audio would return. It did, but I didn’t breathe for about five minutes.”
With half the first season of HD movie transmissions yet to come, it has become clear that Borchard-Young, thinking outside the box, has tapped into a huge interest in seeing opera. Ingeniously, she extrapolates from the size of the Met’s audience for its Saturday afternoon broadcasts. “Here’s an interesting correlation,” she says. The radio broadcasts reach three million people. If 10 percent go (to the cinemas), it will expand the movies enormously.” If the 300-seat capacity of the North Brunswick Regal is typical, it would take fully 100 theaters to accommodate just 10 percent of the radio listeners.
Artistically speaking, the broadening of interest in opera is at least as significant as the number of patrons at the movies. Not attempting to create a monopoly for itself, the Met collaborated with opera companies beyond the metropolitan New York area to spread the word about opera in general. “All around the United States opera companies were working with us hand in glove to promote their shows,” Borchard-Young says. “The Atlanta Opera, Lyric Opera in Chicago, Sacramento Opera Company, and Santa Fe were partnering with us to hand out information about their programs at the movies.”
The HD movies seem to have increased attendance for live opera. Immediately after the HD “Magic Flute,” ticket sales for the Met’s full three-hour live version of the opera picked up. Perhaps the impact of the scheduled movie version of “Eugene Onegin,” has affected ticket sales for its live performances — as of the beginning of February, “Onegin” has been sold out at the Met.
Movie and live versions of an opera are complementary, says Marjorie Garwig of Yardley, Pennsylvania, who describes herself as an easily-pleased opera-lover. After seeing “I Puritani” at the movies, and then five days later at the Met, she calls the combination “a special experience.” Garwig says she has attended at least 250 performances at the Met and has sat in most parts of the house. “I Puritani” is a favorite of hers.
“There are many good things to be said about the movies,” Garwig says. “High definition is breathtaking, offering skin textures and costume details that you just can’t get in the opera house. The singers’ acting abilities come to the fore.”
She adds that “the non-aesthetic pluses are numerous: no tedious trip to New York City; affordable tickets — the movie ticket price is $18; Grand Tier seats at the Met can cost $220. Knowing which operas she likes, but open to others, she welcomes the opportunity to see operas that interest her only marginally at the movies “without any major outlay of time, money, and effort.”
Garwig says “involvement” is one advantages of a live performance — the excitement as the lights dim and the impetus to clap, knowing that “the objects of my praise could actually hear my appreciation.” She finds that sitting in one spot some distance from the stage she can easily focus on the singing and the scenery; at the movies she was distracted by the diverse camera angles and her inability to shut out the English super-titles.
Borchard-Young welcomes extending HD beyond opera. “We are the first arts organization that developed sending live performances into HD movie theaters,” she says. “It would be extreme flattery if other organizations would follow suit. I believe that the banquet table is lush, overflowing with all kinds of different tastes. Rock bands, ballet, Broadway, and other opera companies have room at that table. I believe: the more, the merrier.”
“I come from pop music work,” Borchard-Young says. “But I’ve always enjoyed opera as a fan. It’s a dream come true to be working in this great medium. You can go to art films and enjoy a Hollywood blockbuster. You don’t have to stay in one lane.”
Met Opera at the Cinema, Saturday, February 24, 1:30 p.m., Regal Cinema, Commerce Center, 2399 Route 1 South, North Brunswick. Live HD transmission of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” with Renee Fleming in the role of Tatiana. $18; $15 children. www.metoperafamily.org/hdlive or 732-940-0300.
Also, Saturday, March 24, 1:30 p.m., Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.”
Also, Saturday, April 28, 1:30 p.m., Giacomo Puccini’s “Il Trittico,” consisting of three one-act operas — “Il Tabarro,” “suor Angelica,” and “Gianni Schicchi.”