People tell Mia Bongiovanni that she has the best office at the Metropolitan Opera, and it is indeed impressive. It’s not large, but it’s high up, and on a corner, and with great views: down over Lincoln Center Theater and the new elevated lawn, on one side; on the other, across the main plaza and out to Broadway. To top it off, a few steps from her office door is an interior balcony overlooking the Met’s lobby, with a bird’s-eye view of the famous starburst chandeliers.
It is symbolic that the Met’s media center overlooks the entire house. Here, on the sixth floor, is the jumble of offices and studios responsible for the company’s weekly live radio broadcasts, satellite radio channel, subscription audio and video streaming service, house-produced recordings and films, and, last but very much not least, its “Live in HD” movie theater broadcasts, the Met’s signature initiative. Ms. Bongiovanni, 42, the company’s assistant manager for media, is in charge of making it all happen: digitizing the archives, producing the broadcasts and expanding the Met’s reach all over the world.
“I don’t think any of us had any idea how successful it would be,” she said of the Live in HD program in an interview in her office on Saturday afternoon, during a performance of Don Carlo, the season’s first radio broadcast. The climaxes of Ms. Bongiovanni’s weeks are invariably these Saturday matinee performances, and she’s gotten used to a six-day work schedule.
“It was a big piece of his vision,” she said, referring to Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager and her mentor. “We talked early on about building a media bridge out to our audience and that’s the charge. How do we reach our audience, without waiting for them to come here? How do we get to them, in every way that they’re currently consuming content?”
There are seven assistant managers at the Met, the level of the Met’s hierarchy just below Mr. Gelb and James Levine, the music director. When Ms. Bongiovanni came to the Met in 2006, it was as director of media; there was no higher position. That media has been given an assistant manager spot and seen its staff enlarged even during difficult financial times for the company shows its crucial importance at Mr. Gelb’s Met.
The attention that the company has given to media is paying off. After starting largely from scratch four years ago, this season a dozen live, high-definition broadcasts will go out to 1,500 theaters in 46 countries; last season, the broadcasts became profitable for the first time, making $8 million for the Met, which has struggled with deficits in its $300 million budget. “It’s a big place with a big budget,” Ms. Bongiovanni said, “but every little bit helps.”
Ms. Bongiovanni grew up in Syracuse and went to Colgate College. She graduated in 1990 and moved to New York to pursue a master’s at NYU in the literature of medieval mysticism, aiming toward a career in publishing. But she had grown interested in opera during college, and when she graduated, she saw an ad in the paper for a spot as production assistant in the Met’s radio department. She got the job.
Mr. Gelb was at the time the executive producer of the Met’s television broadcasts, and he took Ms. Bongiovanni under his wing. She left to work for him at the artist-management agency CAMI, where he was in charge of film projects. When Sony bought CAMI Video in 1993 and Mr. Gelb became head of Sony Classical, she became a producer at the label, coordinating recording, production and post-production.
It was an ideal fit. “I’m not a creative person, but I love being in a creative environment,” she said. And the ’90s were the last good time to be in the classical record industry; Sony, especially, was propelled by Mr. Gelb’s bold, controversial crossover projects. It was also a peak of the “old” Met’s media outreach: almost two dozen live radio broadcasts per season as well as several televised operas. In the early years of the new millennium, though, funding started to dry up, along with ticket sales, and TV broadcasts dwindled to one or two a season.
“That changed very quickly when we got here,” Ms. Bongiovanni said. Mr. Gelb was appointed general manager in 2004 (his predecessor, Joseph Volpe, was retiring at the end of the 2005-06 season), and she joined him in the beginning of 2006. “The media department had its set thing that it was doing, and doing well, but it wasn’t growing.”
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.”
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