The Met in HD and Regional Opera

The old Met, back B.D. (before digital), the mother ship for opera in the U.S.
The old Met, back B.D. (before digital), the mother ship for opera in the U.S.
We are in the thick of the opera season, and one way you know that is that the Met radio broadcasts (which have been around since 1920) and the Met in HD theater simulcasts, that started in 2006, are going full swing.

If you haven’t heard of the Met in HD, it is a successful effort by the media savvy general manager of the Met, Peter Gelb, to get the Met to a wider audience. On selected Saturday afternoons, 12 this season, the opera is also transmitted live to movie theaters, in a way that is both screen friendly, that is, with hosts and interviews, but also manages to relay some of the vibe of attending the real thing. All this happens for the price of a $20-30 ticket. There are also repeat showings, and the videos are made available online via a subscription service, on DVD, now on Amazon Prime, and even once in a blue moon on PBS, which is pretty allergic to opera these days.

I’ve caught a bunch of the Met HD performances and am looking forward to The Merry Widow next weekend (even though the reviews are not particularly glowing). In DC where they show at a couple of theaters it’s sometimes so packed you have to get there way early—at least in Bethesda, and the behavior of the crowd has some of the pleasures and plagues of the actual Met Opera attendees. Dressing in evening clothes for a Saturday movie is one odd vestige. Looking back over the five or six I’ve attended, the only place where I really saw a mostly young crowd was State College, PA, a university town.

The Dilemma
But in any case, people are going, and in droves. This has raised a question: is the Met in HD, for all the theatrical pleasures it offers and its democratizing spirit, eroding the audience for regional opera companies in the U.S. and abroad? It’s a hard question to answer with complete confidence–by some measures live performing arts audiences across multiple, although not all, categories are declining, and opera audiences–although we are loud and ardent–are not all that substantial a percentage in the first place.

Even if, definitely linking the advent of the MetHD simulcasts to audience decline is probably not possible, you certainly hear anecdotes to this effect. The Telegraph music writer Rupert Christensen has noted this phenomena and I heard about a town in Canada that used to organize bus trips to a larger city for people who wanted to attend live opera, but once the small town got the Met in HD nobody signed up.

If you grant the premise, that the MetHD (and the reality that we have more content at the push of a button than ever before a non-stop 24/7 amount of classical programming from Sirius/XM and Medici) is killing off at least some regional opera, I think that may be okay.

That’s apostasy, I realize, and my argument goes back a bit for context: In the 19th century, opera–like other performing arts events–was mostly available in the U.S., if at all, through touring companies that traveled from venue to venue. Big stars and companies were the ones traveling from town to town (or in some cases across oceans see Fellini’s magical “And the Ship Sailed On” for a taste of this) and venues in each town formed a network of presenters. It really was the venue that formed the main nodes in the network.

These mostly weren’t opera companies in the modern sense. Although, the Met the oldest company in the U.S. dates from 1883, and there was some activity in New Orleans before that, the notion of home-grown regional production of opera (or regional theater for that matter) is a 20th century phenomena, one that grew vibrantly in the middle part of the century. In part this is thanks to the business model of the subscription season which provided enough money to plan ahead. (The subscription was invented in Chicago by an enterprising publicist named Danny Newman, for many years associated with Lyric Opera of Chicago, which was and is a very successful example of a regional opera company.) Organizations with a subscriber base, a venue, and some year around artistic and administrative staff became the norm.

The narrative about these local opera companies is heart-warming: “look, we’ve got opera in [fill in the blank with a mid-size city] and singer [blank] started here and still returns.” But, and this is said with deep respect for what a difficult and expensive art form this is to present, the results were widely uneven. If, as Placido Domingo has quipped, opera is like vocal Olympics, and it is, small companies were tasked with putting on the Olympics three or four times a year for a few days, providing jobs and entertainment it must be granted. (That the Met, Vienna Opera, Covent Garden and Paris Opera have to do it every night for 8 months is too crazy making to think about.)

The productions these regional opera companies gave were local franchises of a national brand called “opera.” They drew often, not invariably, from the same pool of singers (that is good singers but who were affordable, plus the occasionally higher tier star or two, supplemented by young artists on their way up), they did the same operas, generally pulling from the top 20 most popular, and relied on the artistic staff and materials–be that directors, sets, costumes, etc. that were shared and rented to and fro. (When I was going to a lot of regional opera for work, you could see the same set pop up in city after city. It happened last year with WNO’s Elixir, a set I saw first a decade and a half ago in San Diego.)

This “franchise” approach wasn’t characteristic of every company, and what regional companies provided was far from uniformly bad. But bad or good, it has been deeply disrupted by technology and digital distribution—as surely as Amazon has disrupted the book business. The Met in HD is only the most obvious sign of this disruption, but it’s not the only one and it’s not going away, any more than Amazon is.

The Amazon analogy has its weaknesses—if you ordered Dublinesque from Amazon or if you bought it from Borders, you do after all get the same book. Whereas if you want a live experience, the movie theater is only sort of live, whereas the in-person opera house performance is. But the question is complicated by cost—Merry Window is going to be $24, and isn’t otherwise on this season in DC or Boston, the places I work and live, and if it were, it’s not likely to include the participation of Renée Fleming, Nathan Gunn, and Susan Strohman. Instead, it might well have a cast that comes together relatively quickly to put on a show at a professional but not a distinctive standard and then scatters to travel to the next gig.

Regional opera is stuck with this dilemma, not every company or every production, but enough to ask whether it’s reasonable to expect their audience to come to productions of operas on the HD schedule. If the heart of your artistic product is something that is available down the street—in a similar enough experience–at significantly cheaper cost and at higher quality level, why should people go? A new network provides multiple ways to get a good, if people exploit that network instead of remaining loyal to your version, it seems to me useless to go “bad network!” and gnash teeth. That’s what tech innovation often does, it disrupts! More profitable is to ask: what need could we fill now? and what does this mean for the future?

The first question seems to me the easier one to answer, and some opera companies are doing so–that is, offering something that the Met, and more generally, the digital network isn’t going to do, and do it with some a locally-responsive (locavore opera, if you will) artistic and administrative approach. In some cases, these are things opera companies have often offered, but doing them conceptualized in a new way–premieres that relate to local stories, engagement with young artists, community outreach that is two-way–where the community influences the company and vice-versa. But it does require two things: putting to rest the last vestiges of a long-lost touring tradition, where big stars blow through town, do their party piece and leave. “Pearls to the provinces” has to go.

The other thing that has to go is the implicit and related “it’s all about the big shows” mentality. That means, to put it crassly, if your education and outreach is ultimately about building audience for your main stage “franchise” productions, you are doing it wrong way around. Your education goals—and community goals—should drive your main stage activity. This probably means that a company will be organized around something other than “the national franchise” no “top 20 operas” focus, but rather take an alternate path. Opera Layfayette in Washington and NYC has done this by mining true rarities. (And we’re not talking Rossini’s “La Donna Del Lago,” here, but rather Félicien David’s “Lalla Roukh”.) There are other ways I’m sure are being cooked up in opera—it is an artform remarkable for reinventing itself. Some of those ways probably involve digital learning, after all Peter Gelb isn’t the only one allowed to be technically innovative!

It may be that for some companies, it’s just finding graceful ways to wind down, and to accept that at least in the present form that are not needed. But I honestly think shifts–and the preservation of jobs–are very possible, maybe even likely. I would point to bookstores like Politics and Prose or Brookline Booksmith that have responded to destruction of one aspect of the bookstore eco-system by Amazon by becoming part of a new eco-system of bookstore as community organization.

The other, and to me more challenging question is what this does to “place.” In essence, the MetHD does embody that horrid phrase “the world is flat.” The Met is all over the place now, and as digital networks further infiltrate everybody’s life and choice of what they do with their time, the one-time status of having a venue (and its corollary the subscription series) is not long for this world. Something that is no doubt being tossed around at this weekend’s Arts Presenters conference. Sipping loose of venues is already occurring in arts presentation—in DC we’ve got classical things, which some critics sniff at, in a synagogue cum community center. In Boston, there’s an enterprising group doing house concerts with string quartets and the like. And in a very real sense, the “venue” now often means digital space, fed by a digital product, be that a movie theater, the iPad, the phone, Google Glass, god knows what’s next. That may excite you or freak you out–or just make you tired, but to pretend that it doesn’t exist seems ridiculous. Given enough computer savvy and willingness to pay for subscriptions—not insignificant issues, I grant—you can get as much opera as you ever could in the history of the world. That world may not yet have arrived at your doorstep as an arts professional or an arts goer, but it will, so might as well embrace it, and turn to some–however wary–embrace, rather than resistance.

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