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The Met – Live In HD

Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music – March 30, 2011 - Electronic Media Division Presentation

Launched in December of 2006 with a production of The Magic Flute, the Metropolitan Opera's Live High Definition broadcasts, now in their third season, have expanded their reach to include hundreds of theaters in more than 40 countries around the world. The Met has broadcast live performances to millions of radio listeners for over 80 years and offered live telecasts of its productions since 1977. That combined tradition is the seed for the hugely successful MET HD initiative, which recently sold two million tickets worldwide.

To answer questions about the HD broadcasts and their impact on audiences, CCM assembled a panel of Opera experts: Marc Scorca, President Opera America, Marcus Kuechle, Director of Artistic Operations, Cincinnati Opera, Robin Guarino, CCM Opera Department Chair and Marjorie Fox, CCM Division Head of Electronic Media and panel moderator. First among the questions asked by moderator Fox was “Are the MET HD broadcasts creating and building a new audience for Opera?”, to which Marc Scorca replied with a qualified “yes.” He expanded his answer saying that the HD broadcasts reach a vast audience in communities which are geographically-isolated or do not have an opera company nearby. That means, for instance, that in a large state like Ohio (population 11,542,645), any individual not living in or near Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, or Cleveland (nearly half of the State's total population) does not have access to professional opera performances other than the Met HD ones.

Some of the demographic data on HD broadcasts is sketchy, but a first-time survey conducted in 60 theaters in 32 cities last year reveals that only 5% of their audience is “new”, while 95% is a “seasoned” one. Scorca remarked that the broadcasts help sustain a healthy “discourse about Opera.” More than one panelist expressed concern over how much thought is given to the HD's artistic product and how little to its marketing – a feeling echoed by many in the audience who expressed how the HD broadcasts remain “under the radar” of most people, which may account for the fact that the “regulars” in the 95% segment of the audience who attend Opera get their information from sources unfamiliar to the occasional arts attendee in the 5% group.

Panelist Robin Guarino – a noted stage director – made several points with a no-nonsense approach that comes from being “in the trenches” (both academic and professional) and listening to her constituency. For Guarino, her students prefer to “save their kopeks” and attend a live performance that may cost them $100. If they are going to watch something on a screen, they will curl up in their couch with a beer and some popcorn and watch a video or several YouTube links. The popcorn and beer joke opened up a lively discussion about the straight-jacket that still lingers on in classical music performances – opera included. “Sit-up straight” performances are not inviting in new audiences, but keeping them at bay.

The nature of HD broadcasts – their look, their pacing, their particular demands on the acting skills and look of the performers, their implacable way of exposing stage fakery and any but the most exquisitely-finished and authentic costumes, all came under fire in witty and humorous ways. One audience member interviewed on camera expressed how underwhelmed he feels when shown in complete detail the fillings in a tenor's teeth or the double-chin on the soprano when the camera closes up on the singer.

At the start of the evening, a short video from Der Rosenkavalier that Robin Guarino directed at the Met this season with Susan Graham and Renee Fleming exposed just such a problem. Ms. Fleming – radiantly beautiful as the Marschallin – lies in bed with Octavian, presumably a teen-ager half her age with whom she is having an affair. The estimable mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sings well the role of the young paramour but her looks strains our credibility. Her age and her physique make it impossible for us to believe she is Octavian, the youth about to break the heart of the Marschallin. With a camera unflinchingly closing up on Ms. Graham, we cannot suspend our disbelief. A traditional opera audience – the sort of people who have seen the Strauss opera a dozen times and can tell you at length about Schwarzkopf and Ludwig, or Te Kanawa and Troyanos in the roles – will not mind. But the audience member new to Opera will notice and will judge. That's an inescapable reality that touches both the artistic product and its marketability.

Opera is an art form created for big houses (3,000 seats at the Met) with big sets, big orchestras, and singers with big voices. What works on stage at the Met, when you are seated several dozen feet from the huge stage will not always translate well into the different medium of film, even a hybrid kind of film such as HD video. People – this writer included – love the HD broadcasts, their chatty backstage visits and gossipy interviews, the fun of seeing the scenery changed and James Levine going to the pit. Once the opera begins, the artistic event itself takes on a new character and we get down to serious business. If we are going to get Simon Boccanegra or Lucia di Lammermoor in close up, it better be with a great singing actor – a Domingo with the real grey hair and the gravitas to portray the Doge of Genoa, or a Natalie Dessay with the voice, looks and acting chops to gives us a punch in the gut with her mad scene. Nothing but the best, the real-deal will do: voice, acting skills, personality. In close up.

New works are gradually expanding the repertory – works conceived by John Adams and Philip Glass and Jake Heggie for singing actors trained in a kind of dramatic realism still foreign to many opera stars. These new works are being staged by directors familiar with the sensibility of American librettists and composers. The future of HD Opera broadcasts may well be in these loving hands and in these modern works. There's much more to come from the Met HD broadcasts in the years to come and much to celebrate today.

Rafael de Acha



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