NEW YORK (MainStreet) — One of the successes touted by Peter Gelb during his term as the Metropolitan Opera's general manager has been the development of the group's Live in HD program, live operas broadcast to many theaters around the world in high-definition video.
The goals of the program when it was launched in 2006 were to generate additional revenue for the company using available resources, to widen the impact of Met Opera productions globally and to cultivate new audiences for opera in general. Eight years on, revenue has clearly grown, but the rest remains a nagging question mark.
Is Live in HD good for regional opera companies or for opera in general? Is it good for the Met?
Gelb himself noted the complexity of the question in public interviews last year when he used the word "cannibalization" to describe a tick down in ticket sales at the group's home in Lincoln Center as a result of the Live in HD broadcasts in the New York City area.
On the whole, however, the numbers at the movie theater box office seem to show that Live in HD is a hit. The performances are often well attended and generate between 8% and 10% of total revenue, making it the third largest source of revenue for the company, behind contributions and live performance box office receipts.
According to the Met, the gross box office for those broadcasts was around $60 million for the 2012-2013 season, the most recent for which figures were available. The Met splits that revenue with the theaters, winding up with $28.0 million revenue for itself, putting the project $17.1 million into the green. For the same period, the nonprofit opera company had total operating revenue of $324 million.
Internationally, the program has generated huge audiences and bolstered interest in the Met's productions. In the U.S., theater attendance varies by town, but the overall numbers are strong. So notwithstanding any dip in Lincoln Center ticket sales, from the Met's perspective, the program does appear an unqualified success.
Regional opera companies, however, aren't seeing a similar benefit.
Christopher Hahn, executive director of the Pittsburgh Opera, felt the Met's live broadcasts were a good thing, on the whole, although they didn't grow audiences. Speaking about whether his company's subscription numbers had seen a boost as a result of Live in HD broadcasts, he said, "We haven't seen any discernible crossover."
While acknowledging the program has many plusses for opera lovers, Hahn said newcomers aren't being drawn into Pittsburgh Opera productions through the experience.
"Seeing it as a natural funnel of activity is a bit much," he said.
Richard Russell, executive director of the smaller Sarasota Opera, said that, by and large, Live in HD has been success for the Met but not for regional companies or for opera in general.
"[I]t achieved the goal of getting the Met extending their revenue and extending their presence," Russell said. "I think it has negatively impacted our ticket sales, our subscriptions in particular."
Sarasota is a wealthy community with a high percentage of older people for whom the movie theater's easy parking, food, showtimes and comfortable seats carry significant appeal. That convenience factor is having an effect.
"We're finding that in particular, our older audience is maybe picking and choosing a little bit more," Russell said.
Sarasota Met Live in HD performances are frequently sold out, Russell said, but like Hahn, he doesn't see seats filled with first-time opera-goers.
"I see the same people that I see at the opera," he said. "I don't see new audiences."
Part of the problem is the Met's ticket policy favors members of its patronage society who are already avid fans over those who might make a last-minute decision to go. Members of the Met Opera Guild get a subscription to Opera News and first choice on Live in HD performances.
"A couple of weeks after they go on sale, they're already sold out," Russell said. "There's no decision for a ticket buyer to go the day before or the day of, because the show is already sold out."
The Upside of Upstaged
Both the Pittsburgh Opera and the Sarasota Opera have productions scheduled this season that are also on the list of the Met Opera's Live in HD performances. The Met being one of the world's top opera experiences, for both music and production values, it seems reasonable to expect some impact on local opera ticket sales.
On balance, the Pittsburgh Opera director sees the presence of Live in HD in his town as "a further enrichment and further operatic experience for our audiences," rather than as competition.
"When it comes to having the same opera performed, we've seen absolutely no negative effect, no fall-off," Hahn said. "In fact maybe it creates a little more interest" in the Pittsburgh Opera production.
However, Hahn noted that the impact of overlapping repertoire on ticket sales would likely be greater for smaller regional companies. Sarasota Opera director Russell confirmed that for his group, the Met Live in HD broadcast of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" could siphon off sales for his company's staging of the same work this coming season.
"Yeah, I am concerned it will have an impact," Russell said grimly. "We just have to make sure we can sell as best we can."
Russell pointed to a 2011 Live in HD broadcast of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" that opened on the same day as Sarasota's performance of the same opera.
"We did not have good ticket sales that year," he said.
The Sarasota company, which is in the unusual position of owning its own theater, has turned to profiting from the interest in Live in HD by hosting broadcasts during the off season.
Likewise, Hahn said his group uses Live in HD performances as an opportunity to further connect with audiences, positioning staff and volunteers in the lobbies of participating theaters to distribute better plot synopses and the Pittsburgh Opera's season schedules.
How Live Is 'Live'?
What Hahn calls, "the big elephant in the room" in any discussion of Live in HD is the difference in the experience of watching opera onscreen as opposed to being in the same room as the performers.
"Opera goers are really interested in the live experience," Hahn said, citing the powerful connection audience members feel with the performers and the purity of the unamplified musical sound. "Most opera goers want the live experience and will use the Met as an add-on experience."
In that respect, Hahn said, the Live in HD performances have much to offer, particularly the backstage interviews and demonstrations of set construction and mechanics during the broadcasts' intermission segments.
Because of those additional features, Hahn said, the Met's program "continues to resonate in a cultural fabric -- many, many more people can now talk with some degree of accuracy about the Met's productions, its stars. That's good for the field. It just adds to the conversation."
Sarasota Opera's Russell agrees programs like Live in HD are unlikely to kill off regional opera companies.
"I don't see that as ever replacing the live performances that we do in the height of the season," he said, noting Sarasota's reputation for a strong culture of live theater. "People move here specifically for that reason. I don't see that as ever being a problem for us."
-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in New York