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The Metropolitan Opera's live movie screenings turn 5, despite early skepticism [Updated]

October 8, 2010 | 10:30 am

In December 2006, the Metropolitan Opera changed the game with its first broadcast of its operas to movie theaters across the country.

On Saturday, the fifth season of the cinemacasts, now international and called "Live in HD," opens with a live broadcast of Wagner's "Das Rheingold," the first installment of the Met’s new "Ring" cycle directed by Canadian theater wizard Robert Lepage. (Click here for the list of Southern California theaters, where it will screen at 10 a.m.)

It seems silly now, but when Met General Manager Peter Gelb was first exploring this idea, there was rampant skepticism about the endeavor's financial viability.

“I think a lot of [opera houses] looked at that plan and thought it was potentially foolhardy,” said L.A.  Opera’s chief operating officer, Christopher Koelsch.

For Gelb, cinemacasting was simply the next logical step in the Met’s 80-year broadcasting history.   When the Saturday matinee broadcasts started in the 1930s, radio was the latest thing, and while they are still wildly popular with opera fans (listen on KUSC 91.5 in L.A.), people consume media differently in the 21st century.

“Even though it was untried and a new idea in terms of technology, [cinema-casting] is not that different [to radio]. It’s just with cameras,” Gelb said.
 
Last season, the cinemacasts grossed $47 million, half of which is retained by the Met.  “Out of that $23 million or so," he said, "we covered our production costs of roughly $12 million and paid royalties to the unions [the Met has 16] and artists.”  Once the expenses were paid out, the Met had $8 million to put back into the pool.
 
"The model that we have established here is a combination of the way the movie industry works in terms of rolling something out first in cinemas and later on in other formats, and the way the world of sports works in terms of approach," he said.

"My reason for doing this was really to take the way sports teams connect with their fans and make every single game available. "

It may be a while before foam fingers are available at the Met giftshop, but turning to sports for revenue-making ideas seems to be working.
 

"The costs of running performing arts companies is not changing," Gelb said, "and the only way we can make financial ends meet for an institution like ours is to find an appropriate blend of revenue from ticket sales, donations and new revenue sources."
 
Now that the Met is beaming into cinemas all over the world, local opera houses have lost a bit of their  geographic advantage. And some  might conclude that other houses must resent this sort of cultural imperialism, particularly now that so many are in a state of financial crisis. But that's not so, at least not at L.A. Opera.

“I’m firm believer in the power of the art form,” Koelsch said. “I think that anything that can be done to introduce [opera] to new audiences is good. This also reflects the opinion of James [Conlon] and Plácido  [Domingo], which is: It’s a big tent." 
 
The Met has shown that the cinemacast concept works, and now other opera houses, ballet companies and even England's National Theatre have joined the party. The Royal Opera House in London went so far as to buy Opus Arte, an existing production company, to better control its costs. [Updated: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said the Royal Shakespeare Company has joined the ranks of arts organizations offering cinemacasts of their productions.]

Taking another approach, the Armstrong Theatre in Torrance is presenting a series of four archived San Fransico Opera productions this season, filmed with cameras built into the opera house. The L.A. Opera is exploring the idea of cinemacasting but doesn’t have any immediate plans to get into the game. For now, the opera's first step at any public showings of its own opera is this week's two free screenings of "Il Postino."
 
Going to the opera house to hear a show live is one thing, but is going to the cinema any different from watching at home on DVD?

“The known factors that excite opera audiences are the level of the performance -- whether a singer will excel or not,” Gelb said. “[Cinemacasting] results in hotter performances for the most part because the excitement and adrenaline-producing effect of being on stage knowing you’re behind seen live in 40-odd countries and 1,500 movies theater screens has a positive impact on [artists’] performances.  They channel their adrenaline into even better artistry.”

-- Marcia Adair

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