Opera’s Media Macher: How Mia Bongiovanni Helped the Met Go Digital

While the basic structures were in place for radio and video broadcast, Ms. Bongiovanni and her colleagues, many recruited from Sony, scrambled to digitize enough archival performances to provide steady content for their satellite radio channel, which launched on Sirius (now Sirus XM) at the start of the 2006-07 season. Though she said that the channel is not yet profitable, the Met looks at it as an investment.

“The archival stuff is not necessarily a revenue generator,” she said, “but what it does do is, every time we preserve a broadcast, it has a life going forward. Airing it on Sirius is only the start of that life. We’re building assets that have a future-commercial outlets, noncommercial outlets, PBS, home video, subscription, licensing for international television, and on and on. We look at it very much as building this incredible library of assets. In that sense, the future potential is significant.”

The HD broadcasts are not without their difficulties and critics. The Met’s new-media initiatives were made possible by a 2006 deal with the company’s unions, but now that the profitability of these projects has been proved, the renegotiation of that deal this spring may be divisive. Though the HD broadcasts have been a success by many measures, it’s not entirely clear that they are greatly expanding the demographics of operagoing. And some regional companies have complained that they are losing audience members to the broadcasts, which are cheaper and more casual than “in-person” opera.

Other major opera companies, including London’s Royal Opera and La Scala in Milan, are also starting to explore live broadcasts, but Ms. Bongiovanni said that the quality of the Met’s work, as well as its having been there first, would keep them successful.

“It’s out there,” she said. “We watch it. We haven’t seen it affect us. For me, I focus on what we’re doing. We’re putting out a level of quality that is unparalleled and due to that we have a very loyal audience. I don’t think about competition so much.”

But competition will doubtless affect the Met’s media position in coming years, particularly as the number and nature of venues expand. The chief executive of the Royal Opera said this summer that he wanted live performances broadcast directly into homes. The Met’s Internet subscription download and streaming service, Met Player, is not currently profitable but will make this possible as more people connect to the Internet through their televisions, on which the high-quality video and sound of the “Live in HD” broadcasts can be approximated. In the not too distant future you may be able to watch any Met performance, live, from your living room. Or on your phone. “We want to be flexible in a way that will allow us to grow in ways that we haven’t thought of,” Ms. Bongiovanni said.

Though she gave ample credit to her colleagues at the Met, there are reasons that Mr. Gelb has kept Ms. Bongiovanni by his side for almost twenty years, dealing with his most important priorities. “I work incredibly hard,” she said, “and there’s a huge amount of trust that’s built up over the years. I know the level he’s striving for, and I know the work he’s trying to accomplish, so I work very hard to do that.”

“Mia is a first rate producer and administrator,” Mr. Gelb said in statement. “She skillfully manages one of the most important departments at the Met, while adroitly handling the wide range of extroverted personalities that inhabit our busy theater.”

As we walked to the elevator, there was a door shut midway down the institutional, concrete-lined hallway. Opening it, we were suddenly confronted with a small crowd of middle-aged and elderly women. Through an open door on the left, there was the incongruous sight of the plush, golden-lit interior of the Met’s auditorium.

Ms. Bongiovanni explained that during performances, female audience members on the Family Circle level share the media department’s bathroom. It’s one of those unfriendly but endearing quirks oddly common in the corners of aging theaters, and it was somehow a reminder of the goal of Peter Gelb’s Met: the transition from analog to digital, from old to new. It’s a transition that will determine the future of opera, and it’s happening on the sixth floor.

Ms. Bongiovanni is making that future possible, but, busy dealing with the technical details of countries, formats and languages, she laughs off the question of where she thinks opera will be, media-wise, in ten years.

“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that stuff,” she said. “I just make sure we’re on the air.”


Opera’s Media Macher: How Mia Bongiovanni Helped the Met Go Digital