Radical Opera

Metropolitan Opera

Photo by Nicole Marti — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Here’s some great news: someone has a vision for the future of opera. Here’s better news: two people have a vision for the future of opera. Here’s the best news: two distinct visions of opera’s future are about to compete against each other in the same city.

Welcome to Round I of the traditionally conservative Metropolitan Opera against the traditionally common New York City Opera — except, thankfully, their traditional roles are no longer relevant.

“When I took over, the Met was on a declining slope toward extermination.” So said Peter Gelb, defining both the obstacle and the clear goal of his new position to lead the Met. Determined to attract new audiences, especially young audiences, to America’s most prestigious opera house, Gelb opened up dress rehearsals for an easy stroll into the theatre, broadcast opening nights outside in Lincoln Center Plaza and Times Square, and hired movie and theatre directors to re-imagine the Met’s standards.

The Met’s biggest drive for new audiences was to present the work “Live in HD!” in movie theatres. As reported in the Economist, 920,000 people in 23 countries have now watched eight Met live broadcasts to their local movie theatres. The average ticket cost has been $22, which has helped to almost pay for the $1.1 million cost of each opera’s broadcast. A team of 60 production crew work the backstage and onstage shots of 15 cameras: Opera like you have never seen it.

The approach is working, at least according to the stats compiled by Shugoll Research: 92% of the HD audiences reported that they were now more likely to go to the Met or another opera house; one in five had not been to a live opera in the past two years; and, 5% had never been to an opera.

Of course, success breeds copying. San Franciso Opera and the Royal Opera House (London) will both start their own HD broadcasting to movie theatres next season, and surely more will follow. What will this do to the Met’s market?

The incoming leader of New York City Opera, Gérard Mortier, believes he knows. Mortier knows a lot.

The former head of the Salzburger Festspiele and the Opéra National de Paris, Mortier is one of the most radical, insightful, and exuberant opera maestros. Before Gelb’s Met transformation, Mortier had done the most to bring in new audiences, and young audiences, to opera with controversial and never-tame productions.

Mortier has been tagged by the New York Times for saying that “art is anything but entertainment, and unrelated to box-office receipts,” a position that might work well in Paris where the government provides 66% of his budget, but appears off base at NYC Opera, where he will be lucky if government resources top 3%.

However, Mortier confronts the Met on precisely the economy of scale. In his keynote at the recent Opera America conference, Mortier stakes out his opposition to the Met’s marketing success.

For Mortier, the cost of reaching new audiences this way is too great, and sends them to the wrong place - the movie house. He is trying to get audiences away from the movie theatres and into the opera theatres. Nothing can, or should, replace the live experience. Straight to the point is the New York City Opera’s new commission of a new opera based on Brokeback Mountain from Charles Wuorinen — how much clearer can you get?

Gelb’s Met, “a vibrant home for the world’s most creative and talented artists working in opera, including singers, conductors, composers” v. Mortier’s future NYC Opera, where “If talking is expression of the mind, singing is expression of the soul.”

One way or other, coming to you live: Two opera houses, both alike in dignity in fair New York City, where we lay our scene…

Where will you be going?

- Bill Reichblum

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One Response to “Radical Opera”

  1. KadmusArts - where culture speaks » Blog Archive » Art v. Director — Euro v. USA
    September 21st, 2009 06:24

    [...] Fortunately, Gelb has been at the forefront of changing the Met’s audience. The Met had one of the most traditional audiences in the country. As all presenters know, the older an audience gets, the less they are attracted to adventure, and the more they expect the sets and costumes to reflect, if not amplify, the high cost of their tickets. Gelb’s initiatives include bringing the Met to new audiences — outside on the plaza, in Times Square, and in movie theatres across the country. (See “Radical Opera”) [...]

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