By Ronald Blum
David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera, sat in a movie theater and watched a live broadcast of Puccini's "Il Trittico" from the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
"I sent an e-mail to Peter Gelb," he said a few weeks later. "I said, 'I respond to this better than actually being in a live theater because the sound is so good, the camera work is so good and it focuses you on the essence of what makes performances great.'"
More than anything else, Gelb's first season as general manager of the Met will be remembered for his video innovation, transmitting six operas live around the world in high-definition as part of a series that will expand to eight productions next season.
Gelb took over last August when Joseph Volpe retired after 16 years as head of the country's biggest musical institution and focused on sight as well as sound — for some putting too much emphasis on the visual. Gelb's first season opened with a stunningly beautiful new production of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" directed by Oscar winner Anthony Minghella, and another highlight of the season was Bartlett Sher's sassy staging of Rossini's "Il Barbiere di Siviglia," also arranged by Gelb.
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the percentage of potential ticket revenue sold at the Met had slid steadily, from 90.8 percent in the 2000-1 season to 76.8 percent in 2005-6. It bounced back to 83.9 percent in the season that ended last weekend, and the number of sellouts increased to 88 — exactly quadruple the total in Volpe's final season.
Gelb said there were increased expenses but that it was too early to assess the bottom line.
"It was essential that in order to fuel the longer-term recovery of the Met, that the kinds of significant changes that we put into place had to begin with this season rather than sitting back and allowing the box office to continue to flounder," he said Tuesday.
Full subscribers for next season are 185 ahead of last season's 12,942, and that includes about 2,000 new subscribers, double last season's 900. He's scheduled seven new productions for next season, the most at the Met since the nine in 1966-67, the company's first season at Lincoln Center.
Gelb is transforming the Met to a company whose live performances are only a part of a larger equation. Its radio telecasts had been a staple since 1931, and Gelb instituted satellite radio and audio streaming on the Internet. He envisions productions being rolled out in the same manner as movies: the opening, the theater telecast and a pay-per-view television availability followed by free broadcast on PBS. In the end, the best are released on DVDs.
"I hope it works. Something needs to be done," said tenor Ben Heppner, slated to be featured in next season's broadcast of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde."
The Met isn't the only opera company racing ahead in the video age. The San Francisco Opera is installing its own television production facility at a cost of about $3 million and hopes to negotiate deals with its unions allowing greater rights. At The Royal Opera in London, Sony put in equipment capable of transmitting 12 cameras simultaneously from 32 possible access points.
"This is the area we're all moving into a very, very big way," said Elaine Padmore, Covent Garden's director of opera. "It's a big challenge for us all in the performing arts."
Through May 14, the Met sold 323,751 tickets to its theater broadcasts, where admission is generally $18 in the United States. "Barbiere" was the top seller at 74,937 on March 24.
Gelb projects that next season's total will reach 800,000.
"We will potentially be in a situation where as many people will attend the movie theater showing live as actually go to the Met during the season," he said.
Singers, taking note of the robotic cameras on the sides of the stage that look like "Star Wars" droids, use special makeup for high definition and, according to soprano Renee Fleming, pay more attention to appearances. Many of them say they've noticed that more people are seeing their performances because of the telecasts.
"Everything is experimental and it remains to be seen. It certainly can't hurt," said soprano Deborah Voigt. "I've had several people here who have seen simulcasts and gone to a theater. I notice that audiences seem to be getting younger."
While in the auditorium focusing on the live performance, each spectator chooses what to focus on, but in the theaters that decision is taken over by the television director. While wide shots sometimes are used for the theater telecasts, closeups sometimes are substituted for the television versions.
Some operas benefit. Tan Dan's "The First Emperor," which seemed inert at times on stage, was faster paced in director Brian Large's TV version. For a riveting revival of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" with Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a touching moment was left in, when tenor Ramon Vargas sang passionately to Elena Zaremba without noticing that a leaf had fallen onto his head.
Gockley said technology advances have been the key.
"With old-time television — small screen, not adequate audio __ the majesty of opera didn't really come through," he said. "In high definition and in good quality sound in somebody's home, a big screen is a very, very powerful conveyance and gives a depth and dimension that we could only dream about before."
In other news, Gelb said Mary Zimmerman will direct the Met's new production of Bellini's "La Sonnambula" in 2008-9 and that "Das Rheingold" will open the 2010-11 season, starting the Met's new staging of Wagner's Ring Cycle.
He also said money was the reason the Met's proposed 2008 tour of China with "The First Emperor" fell through.
"We were always relying upon the Chinese to be able to provide us with financial guarantees that would cover all the costs of the tour," he said. "I guess in the end it became it became more than they had bargained for."
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