Met. Opera Expands Big-Screen Simulcast Program

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Last year, the Metropolitan Opera began broadcasting its performances live to movie theaters around the country. The success of that experiment has led the Met to triple the number of venues to 600 this year in an effort to find a 21st-century audience.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This afternoon, the Metropolitan Opera was back on the big screen. Last season, the Met was trying to build its audience, so it broadcast several of its operas live to movie theaters around the country. The trial was such a success they've tripled the number of venues to 600 this year.

NPR's Jenny Gold has an update on opera's best efforts to find a 21st-century audience.

(Soundbite of song, "I Puritani")

Ms. ANNA NETREBKO (Opera Singer): (As Elvira Walton) (Singing in Russian)

JENNY GOLD: You're listening to soprano Anna Netrebko in last year's High Definition simulcast of "I Puritani" from the Metropolitan Opera company of New York. Netrebko is not only a beautiful voice; she's also a very photogenic star - another benefit of moving to the big screen.

The Met simulcasts are part of an effort to attract new fans who haven't been showing up at the opera house.

Mr. PETER GELB (General Manager, Metropolitan Opera): They are the single, greatest audience development tool the Met could possibly muster.

GOLD: General manager Peter Gelb was hired two years ago to revitalize the struggling opera company. The simulcasts are a centerpiece of his grand vision for the Met.

Mr. GELB: They have raised the profile of the Met and, in fact, raised the profile of opera across this country and even internationally as well.

GOLD: At a million bucks a piece, the broadcasts are not cheap to produce. But Gelb says they're well worth it and may even turn a small profit. He hasn't conducted any formal marketing studies, but he believes that the simulcasts have helped to drive up the numbers of the opera house itself. Attendance was up 7 percent last season. And Gelb says the company has increased its donor base by 4,000 people.

Mr. GELB: Early in the summer, we informed Met fans that if they wanted to have advance access to these High Definition tickets at movie theaters, they could become members - supporting members - of the Met.

(Soundbite of opera)

GOLD: The Met is the largest opera company in the country. It's also the wealthiest. It has the means to aggressively court new audiences in far flung parts of the country. But can smaller regional opera houses hope to compete?

Mr. MARK SCORCA (President, OPERA America): I wouldn't say that they are worried. I think they are cautiously optimistic.

GOLD: That's Mark Scorca. He's president of OPERA America - the national organization for opera companies. He says local houses see the Met's broadcast as a marketing opportunity for their own performances.

Mr. SCORCA: If someone in Omaha discovers that he or she really likes opera, it's not easy to spontaneously get on a plane and schedule a vacation and go to New York.

GOLD: Local opera companies see these audiences as fish in a barrel. Representatives visit the movie theaters to recruit new ticket buyers.

Peter Gelb of the Met.

Mr. GELB: As one of the regional opera companies said to me about a year ago when they first heard about this plan, they've described the Met as the mother ship and said that if the Met is, you know, doing something that is good for the Met, then that is generally good for the rest of opera as well.

GOLD: Other large opera companies are trying their hand at live simulcasts as well including the national opera in Washington, D.C.

(Soundbite of opera)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in foreign language)

(Soundbite of applause)

GOLD: In September, the National presented a free simulcast of "La Boheme" on the National Mall - 14,000 people watched under a blazing sun - a number more akin to a rock concert than an opera.

(Soundbite of opera, "La Boheme")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

GOLD: General director Placido Domingo was beaming during the performance.

Mr. PLACIDO DOMINGO (General Director, "La Boheme"): It's really wonderful to see these people just sitting there with this sunny day. And with that attention, that concentration, you see, you can hear the silence, you know? I mean, nobody is talking. Actually, we are the only one that we are talking at this moment. Everybody is paying attention.

(Soundbite of opera, "La Boheme")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. MORGAN JIM(ph): I've never been to an opera before and I really, really wanted to go. I've been a big fan for so long. I have CDs and everything, but I've never been one in person.

GOLD: So do you think you'll see another one?

Ms. JIM: I know I will.

GOLD: 25-year-old Morgan Jim's reaction is exactly what the National and the Met are hoping for.

(Soundbite of opera, "Romeo and Juliet")

Ms. NETREBKO: (Singing in Russian)

GOLD: The Met launched its season of live simulcasts this after noon. For $22, you could have caught the glamour of Netrebco, singing in "Romeo and Juliet." And it's star power like that that the Met is counting on to bring a million people to its simulcast this season; that's slightly more than will go to the Metropolitan Opera house itself.

Jenny Gold, NPR News.

(Soundbite of opera, "Romeo and Juliet")

Ms. NETREBKO: (Singing in Russian)

SEABROOK: Our parting words today come, not from an opera, but from a diva - La Divina, in fact. Maria Callas - she said an opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down. It starts in my imagination. It becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I've left the opera house.

(Soundbite of opera, "Romeo and Juliet")

Ms. NETREBKO: (Singing in Russian)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in Russian)

Ms. NETREBKO: (Singing in Russian)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in Russian)

SEABROOK: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

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