A Big-Screen Test for Opera

The audience watches a Metropolitan Opera simulcast of Verdi's
The audience watches a Metropolitan Opera simulcast of Verdi's "Macbeth" at a New York movie house in January. (By Stephen Chernin -- Associated Press)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 24, 2008

When "The Daughter of the Regiment," one of the Metropolitan Opera's most-anticipated premieres this season, comes live to a movie house near you on Saturday, it's a good bet that the theater will be mobbed. Met General Manager Peter Gelb's vision for high-definition cinema transmissions of operas has proved so successful after two seasons that the company is adding more of them every year: 11 have just been announced for 2008-09. And other opera companies are scrambling to catch up.

This spring, productions from the San Francisco Opera, La Scala in Milan and London's Royal Opera House began appearing in North American movie theaters. But the response has not been quite the same. On April 5, 170,000 people around the world saw the Met's "La Bohème." A week later, however, when a taped performance of the San Francisco Opera's "Don Giovanni" played in selected theaters around the country, the Pavilion Park Slope movie house in Brooklyn had all of 13 people in the audience.

David Gockley, the general director of the San Francisco Opera, was despondent at the low turnout. "We have had considerably less success than I had hoped for," he said. "We were, I think, too optimistic in what we could do right out of the box."

You might think that the commercial distributor of the San Francisco Opera's moviecasts, a company called the Bigger Picture, would be even more disappointed. But you would be wrong.

"We feel really good about the results," said Michele Martell, the Bigger Picture's chief operating officer. With each successive San Francisco moviecast, attendance has gone up 20 percent or more at each theater, she said. Compared with the Met, this may be low, but at "underutilized time periods," Martell says, "the theater owners are thrilled if they get 90 people. That's more than they have in all their other theaters combined."

In fact, the Bigger Picture is looking to expand its opera offerings next season. The company is not even sure that San Francisco can keep up with demand. "We're looking at operas from other organizations" as well, Martell says. "I was amazed at how many opera companies there are in Europe."

Few opera company administrators ever dreamed that their art form, so often described as marginalized and old-fashioned, would be poised to play a role on the cutting edge of commercial technology. For what's happening here goes beyond the Met's success. It is about a new model for media distribution in today's fragmented, digital landscape. In the age of myriad cable TV channels and self-produced CDs, the hope of the future appears to lie in niche marketing rather than blockbuster sales. In the movie industry, a new kind of company has sprung up to explore the market for what is called "alternative content" -- anything from indie films to concerts ("U2 in 3D") to live sporting events. And opera is proving to be a sizable niche.

The Bigger Picture, Martell says, looks for "content that comes with a built-in affinity audience, a group of enthusiasts that already like what you're bringing them."

"Opera," she adds, "is something we had targeted even before the Met had started."

For opera lovers, this is a bonanza. Although the La Scala and San Francisco broadcasts have yet to make it to the District, Washington residents can see both 25 miles away at Arundel Mills Mall in Hanover, Md. (where La Scala's "Maria Stuarda" plays on April 30). Closer to home, the E Street Cinema will screen Plácido Domingo's 40th anniversary concert from Los Angeles on May 11. And you can see "The Daughter of the Regiment" this weekend in Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, Merrifield or McLean.

For opera companies, the payoff is not so clear. The emerging distribution model involves unusual alliances between not-for-profit organizations and the world of commerce. The most extreme example is London's Royal Opera House, which operates with British government subsidies but last year purchased the commercial production company Opus Arte. "We as an organization are having to rethink our whole way of working," says Christopher Millard of the Royal Opera House, which in its new role as "content provider" is filming productions throughout the season.

It remains to be seen how much opera the market will bear. (Is the opera public really craving three versions of Puccini's "La Rondine," which was screened in a San Francisco production in March, is coming to movie theaters in Baltimore and elsewhere in a production from Venice in June, and is due as a Met high-definition simulcast in January 2009?) So, companies investing heavily to get in on the ground floor -- both the Royal Opera House and San Francisco have installed in-house production facilities -- are reconfiguring their business models while figuring out exactly what it is they hope to accomplish with all the extra work.


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