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  • Opera Goes to the Movies
  • Johanna Keller (bio)

Booing and catcalls greeted opera directors on opening nights of the world's two leading companies this season. Both houses offered updated productions of old chestnuts, and both opera audiences—or at least the most vociferous members—protested loudly. At New York's Metropolitan Opera, Swiss director Luc Bondy moved the familiar story of Puccini's Tosca to the early twentieth century, played out on dark-hued sets designed by Richard Peduzzi, with less-than-thrilling performances. At Milan's La Scala, director Emma Dante baptized Bizet's Carmen with floods of Catholic imagery, including walk-on roles for many priests and many crucifixes; strong performances and a star turn by newcomer Anita Rachvelishvili saved the night. These galas played out on a worldwide stage, with both beamed live to audiences in movie theaters. While that's not news from the Met, which has been transmitting its Live in HD series for three seasons, it was a first for La Scala.

This constitutes an extraordinary shift in the opera world. Until the past few years, while the video broadcasts of live operas were technically feasible, they were considered money-losers. Conventional wisdom held that opera, as an elite art form, could never be packaged and distributed to a mass audience. The paltry market shares for televised operas on sponsor-supported PBS proved that, didn't they? Sure, the Metropolitan Opera Radio Broadcasts had been a hit in their time and, yes, those Saturday afternoon programs still have a devoted listenership, but now we live in a visual age and the next generation wants movies, video games, images!—so ran the argument.

The logical fallacy is that it posited television as the only means for the mass distribution of a high art such as opera. In fact, movie houses, DVD sales, and video-streaming over the Internet are vastly more cost-effective methods of distribution—if you own the product.

The Met Opera owns its product, decades and glorious decades of it (once negotiations are made with singers and orchestral unions for various rights—easier said than done). This season, the Met's Live in HD series is reaching an astonishing 900 theaters in forty-two countries, and last season sold a total of 1.8 million tickets. At my local Cineplex, I pay $25 for a ticket. Do the math. Granted there are expenses for the series, some offset by sponsor underwriting. But this is still big money, undoubtedly welcome to a behemoth nonprofit in this economic clime.

These days the product of the Met—opera performances past and present—is being packaged and re-packaged for mass consumption in every possible format. The operas are available on Met Label DVDs sold in the Opera Shop. For the technologically savvy, they can be streamed [End Page 276] from the computer through the company's online subscription service called Met Player. For traditionalists, they are still on television, broadcast over PBS in the series Great Performances from the Met. Sirius and XM carry the broadcasts, and so does the network of radio stations on Saturday afternoons. There have never been more ways to experience the Met, and to add to its coffers.

All this is due to the ingenuity and talents of Peter Gelb, who took over as director of the Met Opera three years ago. As a former producer at SONY, Gelb inhabited the mass-market media world, tried to popularize classical music by producing crossover records, and became familiar with the movie industry. When he took over the Met, he inherited a hidebound, moribund company with six years of declining ticket sales. It was ripe for redevelopment. Gelb's innovations have dramatically reversed the slide; this season, the box office set a record on opening day, selling over $2.5 million in single tickets.

However successful he is at selling the product, Gelb's success will ultimately be judged on its artistic merit, and it will be several seasons before it becomes clear exactly where he has put his stamp. Given the lead-time necessary for a major house like the Met, the first three years of Gelb's reign have...


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