Space Invasion: With Its HD Broadcast Empire, Is the Met Ruining Opera or Saving It?

When critics and fans debate the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD broadcasts, the question is always: “Is it good for opera?”

Whatever that means. The question has its artistic corollaries: What are the broadcasts’ implications for casting, for singing, for acting? Are they changing opera? Is that the goal, or a goal, or are the broadcasts just an elaborate marketing tool? What does “good” for opera mean, anyway?

In New York, we tend to think about these kinds of abstract questions relating to the broadcasts rather than more practical ones because, well, the Met will keep on going no matter what the broadcasts do. Elsewhere in the United States, though, it’s uncertain what the effect of the broadcasts is on smaller regional companies. The Met and general manager Peter Gelb have long insisted that the broadcasts have sparked nationwide interest in opera and actually help other companies. This may be, or it may not; the fact is that there is little data on the subject.

“We have not actually done a formal survey,” Marc A. Scorca, president and CEO of OPERA America, told Opera News in July, “though we do plan to. We have, however, received significant positive anecdotal response from a lot of the midsize and smaller companies.”

A year earlier, though, The Times got Reed Smith, the general manager of Tri-Cities Opera in Binghamton, N.Y., to go on record saying that two busloads of new subscribers who had planned to travel from Ithaca and Syracuse had canceled their subscriptions. “A majority of their group had decided they would just go to the movies to see their opera,” Mr. Smith said. Of the Met he said, “They’re invading our space, to put it bluntly.”

On Nov. 7, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported that Opera Cleveland–formed in 2006 from the merger of two older companies–would be going on an indefinite hiatus due to financial woes. Without directly quoting the company’s executive director, William Cole, the article said, “The Metropolitan Opera’s high-definition broadcasts to movie theaters have drawn many patrons–especially older subscribers–away from locally produced opera.”

Such a claim seemed to have, well, zero evidence behind it. I called Mr. Cole to ask him. “Three years ago, when the broadcasts began,” he said, “the Met had asked the regional opera companies if they would like to play the local hosts, and we agreed. We used our personnel to welcome people to the theaters; we created a program for people, with information.”

Throughout 2008, the company did its own surveys of the audiences attending the broadcasts and found that there was little effect on its subscriber base. Yet with the acceleration of the recession, he said, the company lost about 750 subscribing households, half their base.

“We lost probably close to, I would say, 50 to 70 households, conservatively,” he said, “to people who said a primary reason for dropping was that at the broadcasts they could get cheaper tickets for Met productions, and we could eat popcorn. This year was the first time that people were volunteering that they were choosing the broadcasts over coming down to the real thing.” But he emphasized that there were many factors that resulted in the subscriber losses, many of them specific to Cleveland, its geography and its particular economic and social woes.

So the Met might be ruining opera, or it might be saving it. It might be causing Opera Cleveland to close, or it might not be. Until OPERA America or another organization (or, say, the Met itself) decides to find out what is actually going on, we’ll know next to nothing except anecdotes.

Would it be the end of the world if live opera became even rarer? I saw a troubling Opera New Jersey production of Carmen earlier this year–poorly sung, poorly directed. It was unclear why it was taking place, except so that it could take place, and why anyone was in the audience, except for the vague accretion of cultural capital. It’s hard to determine what about opera is worth preserving for its own sake. For better or worse, the next couple of years with these broadcasts will help us find out.

If any performance could persuade a skeptic that an excellent broadcast performance is better than a mediocre live one, it was Anna Netrebko as Norina in the Met’s Don Pasquale. The shamelessly realistic Otto Schenk production was mounted for her in 2006, and she’s even better in its first revival.

It’s time for it to be universally acknowledged that Ms. Netrebko is the great diva of our day. She is the one providing the most charisma and excitement without sacrificing a lush, ever-darkening, still-agile tone.

Ms. Netrebko’s big, womanly voice isn’t the kind you’d expect for Norina, who, like the other famous “-ina” roles, is usually sung by bright and girlish voices. But Ms. Netrebko brought a maturity to the role–Norina is, after all, a widow–that charged her flirtations with Malatesta (the excellent Mariusz Kwiecien) with genuine erotic energy, and the whole show, conducted with great beauty if not rollicking energy by James Levine, was funny and elegant and humane. On top of her memorable La Bohème last year, Ms. Netrebko proved that she is not just a Met star, but the Met star. This was her last New York appearance for a while, but bring on next season’s opening-night Anna Bolena.

Besides Don Pasquale, November was a month of comedies–or, at least, operas in which no one dies at the end. New York City Opera revived its 1999 Leon Major production of Strauss’ Intermezzo, an opera that features–like Pasquale–an extravagantly shrewish wife. The production is charming and witty, and the opera, based on an episode in Strauss’ life when his wife briefly believed him to have a mistress, is queasily funny; for all its stylization, its depiction of a troubled but ultimately loving marriage is pitch-perfect. Much of the opera’s power, though, depends on the singer playing the wife, Christine, and Mary Dunleavy lacked some of the plushness to soften an infamously hard-edged character. The result was that our feelings toward Christine–always ambiguous–leaned a bit further away from sympathy than they should have.

The reverse was the problem in the Met’s revival of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, as bittersweet an opera as exists–and, like Intermezzo, an inquiry simultaneously light and deep into adultery and jealousy. The Lesley Koenig production is airy, but successive revivals have dulled its original sharpness, and this latest run has emphasized the cuteness of the story rather than its bite.

The revival exists because of the presence of the great conductor William Christie, in his belated Met debut. Mr. Christie’s company, Les Arts Florissants, specializes in Baroque opera and has been responsible for some of the great operatic events of the past quarter-century. Given the occasion, the first performance of the run seemed surprisingly under-rehearsed. From the overture on, it was clear that Mr. Christie was aiming for propulsion and swiftness, but the result was a first act both frantic and underpowered. Other than a few gorgeous moments, like the famous trio “Soave sia il vento,” the ensembles barely hung together, and the arias suffered from the fact that most of the singers sounded thin and uncomfortable. The second act went more smoothly, and Isabel Leonard’s “E amore un landroncello” was a high point (as was her stylish performance in general), but the evening was strange: What should have been a sublime night of music turned out to be, at best, just a good one.



Space Invasion: With Its HD Broadcast Empire, Is the Met Ruining Opera or Saving It?