Taking a Dip in The Online Stream

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008

Of all European summer music festivals, the Bayreuth Festival may be the hardest ticket. Devoted to the operas of Richard Wagner, presented in the theater that he built, it receives so many requests for its two-month season that people wait for years to get in. Last Sunday saw the first performance this year of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" as produced by Katharina Wagner, the composer's great-granddaughter.

Last year, it was the talk of the season among those who had managed to see it. This year, it could be experienced live on your home computer.

For if you don't travel to Europe's festivals this summer, some of them will come to you. If the 49 euros (almost $80) that Bayreuth charged to log on to its first-ever live video transmission was too steep, you could go to the Web site Medici.tv, which this summer has featured live broadcasts from three festivals: Aix-en-Provence, Aspen and Verbier. That same afternoon, free of charge, it was offering a live webcast from Verbier of a chamber concert with violinist Julian Rachlin, cellist Mischa Maïsky and pianists Piotr Anderszewski and Nikolai Lugansky, among others. (The last of the site's 27 live webcasts from Verbier -- Valery Gergiev leading the festival orchestra and pianist Hélène Grimaud -- takes place Sunday at 1 p.m. Eastern time.)

Does anybody actually want to watch classical concerts on their computer screens? Evidently, yes. Last year, Medici.tv reached 150,000 unique viewers with its broadcasts from Verbier, according to Medici.tv's founder and director, Hervé Boissière. This year, he says, the numbers are even better.

The real question is whether anybody wants to pay for it. Medici.tv's live broadcasts are free. The Bayreuth "Meistersinger," with its hefty price tag, was far from sold out. BF Medien, the in-house company in charge of the streaming (BF stands for "Bayreuther Festspiele"), limited online ticket availability to 10,000 people. The company declined to say how many people logged on before the stream was taken down (it was available for viewing until yesterday), but Alexander Busche, a company spokesman, says it was a long way from 10,000.

"With that many users," he said by e-mail, in German, "we would have staged the largest-ever international streaming event in the history of the Internet. And you can't do that with high culture."

Not, at least, when it costs the users money. But Boissière says that Medici.tv got 12,000 individual viewers for a live performance of Peter Sellars's production of Mozart's "Zaide" from Aix in June, and that tens of thousands more have seen it since. (Each live broadcast remains up on the Medici.tv site for 60 days.)

Bayreuth's and Medici.tv's festival excursions are the latest installment in the ongoing quest to discover how "new technology" -- a vague designation that generally refers to digital media and the Internet -- is going to affect classical music. Live audio streaming of concerts on the Internet is old hat these days. Live video simulcasts have gone out to movie theaters, thanks to the Metropolitan Opera and other companies or to university campuses via Internet2, the high-bandwidth Internet successor that's used by a group of research and educational institutions. So live video streaming on the computer is a logical next step.

And plenty of organizations are exploring it, from Web channels like Medici.tv and Monteverdi.tv, which has also done a few live events, to institutions like the New York Philharmonic, whose concert from Pyongyang, North Korea, got about 25,000 live viewers on Medici.tv this winter. The Philharmonic invested about $20,000 in upgrading its media player for the Pyongyang broadcast; it is now hoping to get more for its money with other simulcast projects. Medici.tv has put about a million dollars into its venture so far, with additional financial help from private sponsors; public funds in Europe, where the company is based; and the festivals themselves.

The Verbier festival has gone so far as to make the Medici.tv broadcast agreement a part of its standard artist contract; this year, only two artists declined. Of course, this only works because the live broadcasts are free -- no one is making any additional money off the performance. If Medici.tv wants to use the footage after the initial 60 days are up, it will have to renegotiate the rights with each artist.

"Monetizing," as it is delicately called, is the problem. New Web ventures have a way of running aground on the fact that users expect content to be free. Medici.tv, in addition to live concerts, has an archive of music videos and documentaries, available individually or as part of paid subscriptions. So far, there are only 250 subscribers. "We know the video-on-demand revenues will take time," Boissière says.

A difficulty with charging for Internet streaming, as the Bayreuth webcast showed, is that the broadcaster cannot control the quality of reception for individual viewers. Anyone who has watched a video on YouTube knows the occasional hiccups, the little rotating wheel that appears in the middle of a frozen screen. The best equipment in the world in Germany cannot compensate for reception difficulties in Washington or New Mexico. "We try to do the best from, let's say, A to M," Boissière says, "and have to hope from M to Z."

I watched the Bayreuth "Meistersinger" on a relatively new computer with updated software on a high-speed Internet connection. The first act was fine, but as the performance wore on, the signal grew increasingly unsteady: the picture sometimes freezing with the message "LOW BANDWIDTH" across the bottom, then snapping back into real-time with electronic-sounding hiccups and stutters of sound. Was the problem increased traffic around the country? My Verizon connection? The sheer length of the six-hour broadcast, taxing the abilities of my computer? Whatever it was, it wasn't affecting my connection to Medici.tv's live broadcast; whenever I switched over to the other Web site in frustration, the concert in Verbier was coming through loud and clear.

BF Medien's tech support guy answered an e-mail query with a level of personal service seldom encountered in a help line, but he could only say that the problem didn't appear to be on his end, and suggest that I (again) restart my computer. Ultimately, I saw most of "Meistersinger" live, and was able to log in again after the performance and see the parts I had missed. But it didn't exactly feel like an $80 experience.

On the other hand, there was a certain excitement to the sense of being present. And the broadcasters did their best to give the customers their money's worth, including intermission features lasting for all of each hour-long intermission. Interviews with the singers revealed, among other things, that there is some amplification onstage to enable the singers to hear the orchestra in Bayreuth's famous covered pit. The camera also traveled into the pit itself, where the players wear casual-Friday dress since no one in the audience can see them. (Of course, these features were entirely in German.)

In the age of YouTube, the concept of streamed performances has a certain inevitability. Yet streaming lengthy concerts is not necessarily natural for an audience used to the ease of DVDs (I found myself wanting to hit Pause after staring at the computer for four-plus hours). It seems most likely that streaming will continue as one of a range of new-media offerings designed to increase classical music's access.

Indeed, the Bayreuth computer broadcast was auxiliary to what, in Germany, was the real "Meistersinger" event: The performance was shown live on an outdoor screen in the town square, to tens of thousands of people. It was a radical gesture for a famously elitist festival.

And since the performance was already being filmed, streaming it was relatively easy. "We will certainly try it again next year," Busche said. Being computer-savvy, he added a smiley face, for emphasis.

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