Opera lures viewers to multiplexes

'Met: Live in HD' gets theater orgs' attention

As legiters seek footholds for old-fashioned live entertainment in the world of new media, the Metropolitan Opera has struck a profitable balance between stage and screen — and theater orgs have begun to take note.

“The Met: Live in HD,” the successful series of live hi-def cinema transmissions of current Met offerings, continues to expand even as the company has been forced to downsize some of its programming ambitions in the current economy.

The growing momentum of the program — with more than 1.5 million tickets sold so far this season — has caught the eye of legit orgs looking for ways to boost their brands. Earlier this year, London’s National Theater announced a similar series of live cinema broadcasts clearly modeled on the Met’s pilot program.

“We’re being copied and competed with by other opera companies, too,” notes Met general manager Peter Gelb. In early March, for instance, an opera company in Poland initiated its own broadcasts in movie theaters.

Such imitation is inspired in part by the program’s snowballing sales. Now in its third season, “The Met: Live in HD” has grown from 248 theaters in eight countries, in its initial year, to 850 theaters in 37 countries for the 2008-09 lineup of 11 productions.

Gross sales are expected to hit $25 million, a huge jump from the $4.8 million in its six-production inaugural season.

Inspirations for the program include the Met’s long-running series of live radio transmissions — of which the HD broadcasts are just updates with new tech — and Monday Night Football, with Gelb arguing that opera fans are just as rabid as sports fans.

Performer and stagehand unions were initially wary of the “Live in HD” program as a potential exploitation of its members — but they warmed up when a deal was worked out that has union members sharing in revenues once the broadcast’s production costs are recouped.

“It’s a model that works,” Gelb says, adding that sales easily outpace the costs of production and distribution, which average around $1.3 million per transmission.

Part of the benefit comes in bringing Met fare to new auds — a goal shared by an array of Gelb’s aud-building programs, including free dress rehearsals and live telecasts in Times Square on the season’s opening night.

“We’ve seen it go from the core opera fans to a broadening demographic,” says Dan Diamond, VP of Fathom, the National CineMedia branch that distribs the “Live in HD” series. “It creates a relevance to younger audiences because it’s in a movie theater, and it’s more affordable.”

That rising profile, in turn, feeds into box office at the Opera House itself. Paid attendance, which came in at 76% before such initiatives began, rose to 88% last season.

Cinema auds have access to bonus content that in-person operagoers don’t see. A star not featured in the performance — it was Renee Fleming for the March 7 transmission of “Madama Butterfly” — serves as host and interviews the performers as they come offstage.

The aim is, in part, to undermine the stodgy image that some consumers might have of the genre. Patricia Racette, who played the title role in “Butterfly,” showed off her sense of humor backstage by cracking jokes about her age and thanking her co-star Marcello Giordani for carrying her off “ass-first.”

The transmissions get encore screenings, but it’s the live nature of the event that really attracts crowds, with 80% of overall cinema attendance logged for the original simulcast.

The aim of the HD series, as with all the Met’s audience outreach programs, is to play up the Met as an accessible destination.

The next step in the campaign also involves the silver screen: A new doc, “The Audition,” opens April 19 and follows a group of up-and-coming performers during the Met’s National Council Auditions.

“It’s opera’s version of ‘American Idol,’ ” Gelb says.

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