Opera for the Masses Reps Cash Cow for the Met

It might seem ironically lowbrow, but the Met: Live in HD — the Metropolitan Opera’s popular live broadcasts in movie theaters — took some inspiration from the world of sports.

“It’s the performing arts equivalent of what sports teams do, to keep the bond strong between teams and their fanbase,” says Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager.

Gelb was hired in 2005, in part, to shake things up at the 132-year-old institution.

“They asked me what was wrong with the Met,” Gelb says. “I said I felt it was detached from the cultural life of New Yorkers, and that — even though it was without question one of the greatest opera companies in the world — it needed to regain some kind of footing in mainstream culture.”

Gelb’s solution involved bringing in top musical theater and film directors, and launching a 24-hour SiriusXM channel. But his biggest gamble was persuading the company’s disparate unions and its stars to record a series of shows each season in HD, and pipe them, live, into theaters around the world … hoping there was an audience that would turn up to watch.

The goal, he says, was simply that the incremental costs of cameras and crew would pay for themselves over time. “It turned out to be much more successful than that.”

Live in HD, embarking on its 10th season next month, is now a $60 million business. The series is seen in 2,000 theaters in 70 countries in 11 time zones. It nets an annual profit of $17 million to $18 million (roughly 12% of the Met’s total revenue). It’s the heftiest “alternative cinema content” provider in the market, and has been recognized with two Emmys, a Peabody and CinemaCon’s inaugural Excellence in Alternative Content Award.

The Met has always been a media pioneer, broadcasting on national radio since the 1930s, and producing Live from the Met — a televised series for PBS’ Great Performances — in the ’80s. (Gelb himself ran those broadcasts for the Met.)

When Gelb called Gary Halvorson — the chief helmer for Live in HD, and a veteran TV director — in 2006 to help rethink the way opera could be directed for live broadcast, Halvorson was thrilled.

“I had seen the Olympics and you see the cameras tracking along with the runners,” Halvorson says. “I said, ‘Why can’t we do that at the Met and hide that camera right in front of the stage?’ ”

The Met’s gamble has inspired a company of imitators. San Francisco Opera, L.A. Opera, Paris Opera and Milan’s La Scala have started projecting into multiplexes. The business of alternative or event cinema has exploded, expanding to include everything from museum tours to RiffTrax’s live movie-mocking. And even though the Met didn’t invent the concept, most pundits credit the institution as its popularizer.

Gelb has bigger plans for Live in HD, which already include an on-demand subscription service for Apple TV, Roku and mobile apps. He also wants to partner even more with schools (“a way of seeding the audiences for opera for the future”).In another irony, the Met — in embracing the future — he has connected the world with its past.“Even though we’re using the latest in digital technology, it’s a very old-fashioned kind of cultural experience,” Gelb says. “It’s not the trend of modern Internet experiences, which are basically geared to individuals. This is about old-fashioned, collective entertainment, which is fitting, because the art form is old-fashioned, too.”


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