Night at the opera has its day in digital

NO ONE CAN doubt that media is being sliced, diced and repurposed in myriad new ways for an array of new platforms.

While TV fans are bowled over by the idea that they can now instantly access a season’s worth of “Lost” episodes on their iPods or ring up mobisodes of “24” on their cell phones, other less high-profile material may also get a new lease on life.

In theory, at least, there is room for, and money to be made from, the exploitation of very high-end content. Everything can now have its paying devotees.

Take the archive of live radio recordings of Saturday afternoon performances at the Metropolitan Opera House. These performances feature some of the most famous voices in all of opera, from Beniamino Gigli and Lily Pons through Maria Callas and Franco Corelli up to and including Luciano Pavarotti and Renee Fleming.

Countless folks across the country say they first got interested in opera through these weekend operatic extravaganzas, which also included witty commentaries by the likes of announcers Milton Cross and Peter Allen.

Now in its 75th year, the Met’s Radio Broadcast is deep into a preservation program that will eventually see the salvaging of 1,400 broadcast operas, each recorded onto three or four reels of tape. A Met spokesman said this week that the team has completed preservation of about one-third of the collection.

The first-ever live radio broadcast was on Christmas Day 1931, when the Met performed “Hansel and Gretel.”

The wireless broadcasts first aired on NBC’s Blue Network, eventually moving to ABC after WWII, then to CBS, finally migrating to public radio in the 1970s.

Not surprisingly, most of the missing broadcasts are from the 1930s, though there are a few gaps during the WWII years and degradation to a few tapes made in the 1980s. Approximately 100 broadcasts are missing.

The cost of the restoration project should come to $4 million-$5 million, and the funding is coming from private sources and the Met’s own budget.

The task is more difficult than it sounds.

For one thing, many of the recorded performances had simply disappeared or deteriorated; some are just now being retrieved from random attics, from musty archives in European theaters or the shelves of radio stations across the country. Still others are being donated by the estates of deceased singers or turned up by sharp-eyed former Met employees.

Among the most interesting recent recoveries: the Dec. 14, 1946, broadcast of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier,” which was found in soprano Rise Stevens’ private collection.

Other performances recently dusted off include Pavarotti’s Met debut in 1973, in which he wowed Stateside audiences in Donizetti’s “Fille du Regiment.” Or Kirsten Flagstad’s eye-popping debut as Sieglunde in “Die Walkure” in 1936 or Marian Anderson singing the title role in Verdi’s “The Masked Ball” in 1955.

Making money off these recordings would no doubt be a helpful thing for the Met, since high art in the U.S. is increasingly an endangered species.

In the same way that Exxon-Mobil pulled the plug on its funding for PBS’ “Masterpiece Theater,” Texaco-Chevron backed out of its commitment to the Saturday broadcasts of the Met in 2003. For the moment the luxury home builder Toll Brothers has stepped into the breach, but that relationship may not be long term.

Opera may hardly be a commercial option these days, but it wasn’t always so marginal: “Carmen” was relayed to movie theaters across the country in 1949; Ed Sullivan featured Met performers on his TV show throughout the ’50s; Zeffirelli’s “Tosca” was a video hit in the ’80s. Today the art form is kept alive Stateside by well-heeled patrons, corporate sponsors and avid music lovers.

For a number of years the Met has been issuing one Historic Broadcast Album per season to be used as a gift for donors who pledge $150 or more.

“These HBRs are produced in complete cooperation with unions and all artistic personnel,” a spokesman said.

There are talks under way with the relevant unions to see if wider exploitation might be possible. If and when rights and residuals are figured out, the Met will need to flex some marketing muscle.