Rene Fleming is having a not-so-diva moment.?
The star American soprano—clad in a cranberry-colored coat with chic leather cuffs and earrings that twinkle like the Metropolitan Opera’s iconic Lobmeyr chandeliers—is on the Met’s great stage, a half-hour before curtain at the Nov. 9 matinee. And she’s stumped by a word that’s critical to her performance.
?“Gan…ganidz,” she attempts. “Could you remove the name?” The teleprompter operator obliges, leaving just the phonetic spelling of baritone George Gagnidze’s surname. She smiles and tries again: Gagh-NEED-zuh. Perfetto. Standing center in the hovering pack of cameramen, sound techs, makeup artists and assorted handlers, Met GM Peter Gelb gives a satisfied nod.
?Fleming isn’t here today to sing. She’s hosting the Met’s “Live in HD” broadcast of beloved Puccini opera “Tosca,” which will include the introduction she’s rehearsing now. It’s the second “Tosca”—and 72nd broadcast overall—since the inception of “Live in HD” in 2006, in partnership domestically with National CineMedia’s Fathom Events division, which presents and promotes exclusive content with the goal of filling theaters during the light Monday-Thursday period. In addition to the 4,000 who will see the opera from the house at Lincoln Center in New York, an estimated 300,000 more will also be watching from 2,000 movie theaters across the globe, from brunch time in Palm Springs, Calif., to late evening in Moscow.
The “cinema-casts” have been profitable since their second year, raking in millions in revenue (tickets are about $25 a pop) at profit margins of more than 50% (although Gelb is quick to point out that the overall business of running the opera isn’t profitable). The 2012-13 season grossed $60 million, plus “ancillary content and sponsorship sales,” and minus production, distribution and profit sharing, that netted $17 million. Plus, “Live in HD” has increased the Met’s annual audience from 800,000 to more than 2.5 million and its bread-and-butter annual donations by 89% since its first year (from $89 million in 2006 to $150 million in 2012).?
Such results are impressive, by any standards. “As a contemporary music promoter—and that’s the world I live in, not the highbrow world of classical—I was pleasantly shocked when I saw the numbers,” former AEG CEO Randy Phillips says of “Live in HD.” “I think that’s a really interesting aspect of [cinema-casts], for performance vehicles that can’t really tour but still have that niche fan base in markets.”
?Gelb launched “Live in HD,” along with the Met’s 24-hour SiriusXM channel, in his first year as GM, as part of a “series of initiatives” meant to “sustain opera as an art form,” he says. With a production price tag of about $1 million per broadcast, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that the program would ever be in the black.?
“But taking risks is something you have to do, particularly if you’re running an art form that’s hundreds of years old and you have to keep going,” he says.
?In a time when classical entities are struggling—including the Met’s former Lincoln Center neighbor City Opera, which canceled its season and filed for bankruptcy this year—“Live in HD” has given the Met a solid footing, and the unexpected platform of popcorn palaces. And its positive effects don’t end with the curtain calls: The program has made the Met the world’s biggest commercial distributor of operatic content, buoying a post-retail classical music industry.
?“It’s a happy story in a music industry which otherwise isn’t the best place to be right now,” says Costa Pilavachi, senior VP of classical A&R at Universal Music Group International, which releases three to five “Live in HD” DVDs a year. “Peter has moved the goalposts.”?
The benefits are coming from downstream content opportunities, a key selling point of cinema-casts in general. For the Met, these include audio transmissions on SiriusXM and public radio; re-casts on cable channels worldwide (like WOWOW in Japan) and public TV in the United States; Met On-Demand, which allows fans access to its audio and video catalog dating back to 1936, through its website or iPad app (annual subscriptions cost $150; per-opera rentals are also available); and DVD releases from label partners.
?“It’s the opera version of a Hollywood movie roll-out,” Gelb says. “We invented a distribution model that was sorely needed as DVD sales disappeared.”?
And in opera, DVDs aren’t just DVDs: Most opera recordings today are live and audiovisual, “because a DVD can work just like a CD,” Pilavachi says. “Even better if it’s Blu-ray.?
“The classical record industry, from the ’50s to the ’90s, used to record audio-only operas in studios with handpicked casts,” he continues. “But even in those days, those projects didn’t make much money, if at all. Sometimes they lost money, because the cost of putting on opera is insane, and making audio recordings unrelated to live performances is even more insane.”?According to Pilavachi, the “Live in HD” releases “are among our most successful DVDs, if not the most successful. And I’m sure that they’re doing relatively better given today’s market than the ones in the past. I’m convinced that’s because of the very high profile of the ‘Live in HD’ cinema-casts around the world.” ?
Pilavachi and Gelb have known each other for years: Gelb served as president of Sony Classical from 1995 to 2005, when he joined the Met (shadowing then-GM Joseph Volpe for a year before taking the reins). While at Sony, Gelb oversaw other risk-flouting projects, like Michael Bolton’s collection of operatic arias “My Secret Passion,” Pope John Paul II’s prayers-set-to-music album “Abba Pater” and even the 25-million-selling “Titanic” soundtrack.
?It was at Sony where he first heard about the then-unnamed Fathom Events from a colleague, who was working on a “never been done before” promotion for David Bowie’s 2002 “Reality” album release. (“In a specially produced performance, Bowie’s live show is to be beamed via satellite to cinemas globally,” the press release said at the time, which went on to note the “total digital delivery…not a film reel in sight!”)?
“Everybody got really excited about [the Bowie program],” Fathom senior VP Dan Diamond says. “When [Gelb] went to the Met, we were one of the first people he called.”
?The pop lineage of “Live in HD” goes one step deeper: Fathom exists because of Britney Spears’ 2002 tour, the first that the fledgling AEG was able to secure thanks to a marketing plan including cinema-casts and all the promotional impressions they afforded (everything from popcorn vendors wearing Britney buttons to onscreen advertising). The plan leveraged AEG namesake Philip Anschutz’s newly purchased and consolidated network of movie houses, Regal Entertainment. After similarly successful programs with acts like Tom Petty and Prince, Fathom was launched as a division of National CineMedia, which includes Regal, AMC and Cinemark screens.??
While the crowd at Lincoln Center stretches its legs and sips $20 glasses of Champagne between each of the three acts to “Tosca,” Fleming plays Diane Sawyer to the far-flung theatrical audience.?
“We don’t just take a live feed and play it,” Fathom executive VP Shelly Maxwell says. “We work with the content provider to produce something that’s for our feeds only—behind the scenes, and interviews. That’s a critical piece of our value proposition to the consumer.”?Fleming interviews the stuntman who rappels down a tower at the opera’s start, gushes over lead soprano Patricia Racette (“I’ve often thought of singing ‘Tosca,’ but after watching you…”) and talks with Steve Diaz, the Met’s second-generation master carpenter, who tells her in perfect Noo Yawkian that in the perilous flies of the Met’s massive stage, safety always comes first. She does much of this in front of Diaz’s 85-man union crew, some wearing Metallica and Yankees T-shirts, pushing, hoisting and hammering the “Tosca” scenery into place. (Gelb successfully renegotiated terms with the Met’s 16 unions to make “Live in HD” possible, and they now get a portion of the revenue.)
?It’s a stunning amount of earnestness and realism from a genre that has so long prided itself on mystique and elitism. It’s the opera, unmasked, and—surprise!—it moves furniture in sweats and makes small talk with colleagues, just like you.?
“I think the public is fascinated with what goes on in the kitchen, behind the scenes,” says Gelb, who directed music documentaries early in his career, and sits in the satellite truck alongside the director, calling the shots for every “Live in HD” broadcast. The democratization of access—not only backstage but to the opera itself—is a potentially transformative byproduct of “Live in HD.” For about $25, movie-goers can get a better vantage than the aging hall patron who shelled out as much as $275 and have some popcorn and a social experience while doing it.?
“People could wait and watch [the same opera] on PBS for free,” AEG Network Live president John Rubey says. “They already were. The primal nature of going with your friends is much deeper than the content, although the content is extraordinary.”?
“Opera is a viscerally thrilling experience when it’s taken in live,” Gelb says. “The singers are theatrical gladiators, on the stage all alone without amplification, trying to hit high notes. The social experience of opera lovers sitting in a movie theater, even if it’s thousands of miles from the Met, defies the logic of the solo home Internet experience. This is a high-tech version of old-fashioned communal entertainment, and that’s why audiences typically applaud when a singer sings something that they like even though they know the singer can’t hear them. They applaud for each other.”