Met brings classics to masses at plexes

After years on the ropes, high art is battling back.

And it’s the august Metropolitan Opera leading the way, cribbing moves from the pop culture playbook by wooing talent from other fields, adopting hip marketing strategies, exploiting ancillary revenue streams and otherwise throwing off elitist mantles.

Under general manager Peter Gelb, the Met has dusted off its classical repertoire and is opening it up to new generations of potential fans.

Film directors Anthony Minghella and Zhang Yimou were brought onboard to direct “Madama Butterfly” and “The First Emperor,” respectively. Richard Eyre and Matthew Bourne will jointly take on “Carmen” next season.

A free screening of “Madame Butterfly” in Times Square last September provided a splashy kickoff to the season. Some 2,500 people showed up.

And over the past three months the Met has been taking its productions directly to the masses via simulcasts in hundreds of movie theaters on Saturday afternoons.

By at least one measure, a half-dozen Met operas — including the recent “The Barber of Seville” — have quietly outgrossed many films released Stateside and in a handful of countries overseas.

The simulcast of Rossini’s “Barber” — at $18 per adult ticket and $15 for children — grossed $853,836 on 275 U.S. screens on March 24, for a per-screen average of $3,104.

Those grosses would have put “The Barber of Seville” in the No. 18 slot in Variety‘s weekly box office rankings, ahead of Germany’s Oscar-winning “The Lives of Others,” which landed $742,648.

All told, the Rossini opera sold almost 58,000 tickets, for a 77% capacity averaged over all the theaters Stateside and abroad that carried it.

This “Barber” was also far removed from conventional productions. It was staged by “an outsider,” theater director Bartlett Sher, who can’t read music and doesn’t speak Italian but who nonetheless mounted a bold and sexy version of the opera.

Gelb, whose office includes a giant plasma screen from which he can monitor what’s going on at the Met via 10 high-def cameras mounted onstage, launched “Metropolitan Opera: Live in HD” as an initiative to keep the art form current and vibrant.

Following extensive negotiations with its three largest unions, the Met last year gained the ability to send its productions out via live electronic distribution.

The current series launched in 98 venues worldwide with the Dec. 30 transmission of “The Magic Flute,” a new abridged, English-language version by Julie Taymor. Subsequent performances included “I Puritani” in 123 venues on Jan. 6; “The First Emperor” in 176 venues on Jan. 13; “Eugene Onegin” in 208 venues on Feb. 24; and “Barber” on March 24. The series concludes April 28 with “Il Trittico.”

Next season’s offerings will expand from six to eight, including Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” (Dec. 15) and Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (March 22). The list of exhib venues will double, and at least four of the operas will also be transmitted live into NYC public schools.

Even a pay-per-view deal is in the works.

“All opera has been suffering, the age of the average Met-goer, for example, having hit 65. The future of the institution — as well-known worldwide as it is — was in peril. We needed a resuscitation program,” Gelb told Variety in explaining the rationale for the outreach initiative.

The Met produced a series of trailers to drive awareness for the series. In addition, it promoted the series using media it controls, including the Toll Bros. Saturday Matinee Radio Broadcasts, Metropolitan Opera on Sirius, metopera.org, and the Met’s patron base.

In the U.S., such alternative use of cineplexes is gathering steam. Stateside, the Met is partnered with National CineMedia, whose exhib outlets include the AMC, Cinemark and Regal Entertainment chains. 50-50 split of the grosses mirrors that of standard pics.

Venues, obviously, have to be equipped with the latest high-def and satellite reception equipment, and the Met is reckoned to be the first such high art institution to offer artistic perfs live via satellite to movie theaters abroad.

It’s in discussions with a number of exhibs in Europe and elsewhere to become cinema partners. Germany recently joined the “The Barber of Seville” transmission and, with the help of local minimogul Herbert Kloiber, turned the event into a red carpet gala. Gelb says the number of moviehouses will double Stateside next season, and also expand to other European countries.

Will other cultural capos take a page from the Met’s book?

Says Richard Pena, program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, envisioning a hybrid art form melding high-tech and high art: “This holds open the concept for the possibility of a new genre or new field.”

Matthew Kearney, CEO of Screenvision, a joint venture of Britain’s ITV and Thomson that is one of two players (along with National CineMedia) in the business of ads and non-film content screened in U.S. movie theaters, is upbeat about the larger impact of the Met’s success.

“The take-away for our industry is that if you get the formula right, you can provide meaningful alternative content in movie theaters.”

The only difference in not being there in person at Lincoln Center: You don’t have to put on a tux.

But then again, you don’t get to sip champagne, either. At least, not yet.

(Dade Hayes contributed to this report.)

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