March 5 (Bloomberg) -- The Metropolitan Opera’s high-definition live movie broadcasts started out with the modest aim of breaking even -- or not losing much money at any rate.
Now, as Anna Netrebko, Renee Fleming and Joyce DiDonato boost the New York company’s repertoire for the new season, its general manager is proclaiming bigger successes. Live HD transmissions began soon after Peter Gelb took over in 2006.
The shows now make $11 million net profit, according to Gelb, 58. Another 12 broadcasts are planned, including Netrebko in “L’elisir d’amore,” Fleming in “Otello” and DiDonato in the title role of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda.”
“We faced a challenge to find new audiences,” Gelb said in an interview. “Labor costs and material costs were rising, it was impossible to match those expenses with rising ticket costs. Something had to be done.”
Radio broadcasts from the Met began in 1931, and the company has the longest continuous transmission history of any opera house.
“That was the reason I was able to take the risk,” Gelb said. “If only a small percentage of Saturday radio listeners would walk over to their local cinema, I knew we would have an audience.”
Gelb was visiting Europe to spread the HD gospel to interested opera houses. We spoke over a crackly telephone line while he was in Stockholm waiting to hear his wife Keri-Lynn Wilson conduct Tchaikovsky at the local opera house.
At first, just three countries outside the U.S. were taking the broadcasts, he said. Now the shows go to 1,700 movie theaters in 54 countries, with Russia and China among recent additions.
“Those are clearly large potential audiences for us, especially Russia,” Gelb said. “We’ve only just dipped our toes in the water. At first we hoped just to break even. The idea was simply to strengthen the bond between opera fans and the Met.”
Now the transmissions, and subsequent TV broadcasts and DVD sales, bring in about $11 million net to Met coffers.
“That’s the figure after we’ve covered all of the incremental production costs, including cameras and satellite, and payments to artists and unions,” Gelb said. The total budget of the Met, a non-profit organization, is around $300 million annually.
“This is also a burgeoning new sector of the movie theater industry too,” he said. “Our HD audiences are primarily opera fans, so theaters are delighted that it’s bringing new footfall for them, and bringing audiences they don’t usually see. It’s somewhat ironic that opera is leading the way in the ‘alternative content’ sector.”
The company will sell 3 million tickets globally this year, Gelb forecasts. One of those, sometime this season, will be the 10-millionth ticket since the project began. Advertising agencies are also in discussion with the Met. Still, HD doesn’t influence how operas are staged, Gelb said.
“Important as HD is, we don’t design our productions around it,” he said. “It’s always a servant to the artistic design of the stage production.”
Of course, there’s no such thing as a dead cert in opera. The transmission can only as good as the production is on the night. Has Gelb been bruised by the lukewarm reviews to the current Ring Cycle?
“I personally think it’s been a huge success, and ticket sales are good,” he said. “It’s certainly been the single most challenging thing I’ve ever done at the Met.”
Fair enough. It’s the job of an opera chief to take the rough with the smooth. The HD transmissions are smoothing things nicely.
Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, is a global sponsor for the HD project.
Information: For more information about current and future broadcasts from the Met, see http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/liveinhd/LiveinHD.aspx
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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