By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 7, 2006
The Metropolitan Opera will begin transmitting live performances to movie theaters throughout the United States, Canada and Europe next year as part of an extraordinary and unprecedented arrangement among the company, its unions and several media partners.
"Opera now enters the digital era," Peter Gelb, the Met's new general manager, said yesterday.
Beginning Dec. 30, the Met will transmit six of its performances live -- with state-of-the-art sound and high-definition imagery -- to movie theaters equipped with special projection systems and satellite dishes throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. After 30 days, the new productions will be presented on PBS stations throughout the country.
A new contract, announced yesterday, also permits the Met to enter into other partnerships as well, with the possibility of digital downloads, video-on-demand, digital radio, ring tones, CDs, DVDs and instant CDs available after certain performances.
One hundred additional live performances will be broadcast either over the Internet or on digital radio, with another 1,500 broadcasts from the past 75 years -- the Met's entire recorded history -- to be made available soon through an audio-on-demand service.
"It's only possible because the unions have put their faith in our ability to deliver what we promised them -- a means to build the audience and secure the health of the Met -- and, indeed, the health of opera as an art form," Gelb said in an interview. "Our audience is aging fast, and this technology will help us galvanize a new generation."
These transmissions will be possible because of a just-concluded arrangement with the Met's orchestra, chorus, ballet and stagehands, who voted in favor of a new media agreement after extensive negotiations this summer.
In the past, unions have demanded substantial upfront payments to all parties involved in performances -- making recordings, broadcasts and telecasts prohibitively expensive. Gelb calls the new revenue-sharing arrangement a "shift to a more fluid concept of media, in keeping with the infinite possibilities offered by modern technology."
Spokesmen for the unions sound no less excited. David Lennon, president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, which represents the Met orchestra, said in a statement that the agreement would "provide Met musicians with a significant guarantee of additional revenue."
Alan S. Gordon, national executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the Met's singers, dancers and stage staff, called it a "breakthrough agreement" that "protects the future of the Met and its artists and is crafted to let the greatest number of people see and hear their music."
Six matinees will be produced for next season: a Dec. 30 production of Mozart's "Magic Flute," directed by Julie Taymor and conducted by James Levine; Bellini's "I Puritani," with Anna Netrebko, on Jan. 6; the world premiere of Tan Dun's "The First Emperor," with Placido Domingo in the title role, on Jan. 13; Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," with Renee Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, on Feb. 24; a new staging of Rossini's "The Barber of Seville," with Juan Diego Florez, on March 24; and a new production of Puccini's "Il Trittico," conducted by Levine, on April 28.
The Met will be working with three different companies to bring the productions into theaters -- National CineMedia in the United States, Cineplex Entertainment in Canada and Odeon/UCI in Europe. National CineMedia is owned by the triumvirate of AMC Entertainment Inc., Cinemark USA and Regal Entertainment Group, which controls more than 13,000 screens across the country in 150 U.S. markets.
The performances will be presented live, but each theater will have the option of offering at least one rerun. National CineMedia owns many properties in the Washington area, but it is not yet known exactly which ones will participate.
"This will all work a little like the movies, down to the fact that we're starting out with Saturday matinees," Gelb said. "First, we have the live experience, whether at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York or on a screen. That creates a buzz and an awareness for repeat performances, which will then be shown at home on PBS and then made available on DVD or from downloading."
Gelb, who opens his first season as general manager later this month, said he expects between 50 and 100 theaters in the United States to be participating by the end of the season. "We may start off a little slowly, as December 30 falls right in the middle of the biggest box office weekend of the year," he said.
"In the early days of the Met broadcasts, back in the 1930s, whole communities used to gather around the radio to listen," he continued. "This is the 21st-century modernization of that experience. Opera fans are as fanatical about opera as baseball fans are about baseball. We want to make the Met as available electronically to its followers as the Yankees are to theirs."