A Minute With: Met Opera chief Peter Gelb on live opera broadcasts

UNITED STATES - When the Metropolitan Opera began its live-to-cinema opera transmissions on December 30, 2006, its then-new general manager Peter Gelb says many people predicted the expensive experiment would fail.

"I think there were a lot of people who expected us to fall on our face with this programme," Gelb told Reuters.

Seven years later, and with an anticipated 3 million viewers seeing about a dozen Met opera broadcasts this year in cinemas in 64 countries, Gelb says he has proved the doubters wrong.

The Met's broadcasts have created a new market for live cinema broadcasts of dance, opera, plays and orchestral performances by a raft of arts institutions, from the Royal Opera to the Bolshoi to the Berlin Philharmonic which is airing its New Year's Eve concert this year featuring Chinese piano soloist Lang Lang.

Gelb thinks a large part of the broadcasts' allure is the fact they are live, that anything can happen and, at least in opera, it underscores the "gladiatorial" aspect of these highly trained singers giving their all on stage, now to audiences far beyond the boundaries of the opera house.

Here is what else he had to say about how the live broadcasts have helped the Met's finances, are a plus when trying to engage the top singers and may even be helping to bring down the average age of the opera audience:

Q: There are a lot of costs associated with these broadcasts, which cost about $1 million each, so how does it work out financially?

A: The business plan I had for it is that it would make a modest profit so from a financial point of view it has exceeded those expectations significantly. But, at the same time, we were very fortunate that it did because if it hadn't we would be in trouble right now, and in fact we're always in trouble financially because the cost structure of opera is ridiculously challenging and so the fact that we have quadrupled our paying audience with all the attendees around the world who are seeing the Met in movie theatres has been a huge help

Q: What do the singers make of them?

A: It makes our casting easier because we are competing with the other top opera houses for top stars and opera stars know if they come and sing at the Met it's kind of one stop shopping because they can perform on the stage of the Met and be seen by an audience of 300,000 to 350,000 people ... There are subscriptions being sold in the Arctic Circle in Tromso, Norway, to see the Met and the same is true in Buenos Aires or Mexico City or St. Petersburg.

Q: It is different watching the live broadcast in a cinema, rather than the opera house, isn't it?

A: I certainly don't want to replace the experience of going to the Met and seeing it in the opera house but what the cameras can offer, particularly in a comedy like (Verdi's) "Falstaff" which is a brilliant production ... and relies on a lot of cameras that when seen in close up really works ... I realised in the briefcase that Ford, disguised as Fontana, brings in to give to Falstaff they were bundles of dollar bills which I noticed at the last second so we changed them to $100 bills - that's the kind of detail you have to look out for in High Definition (HD).

Q: You've been quoted as saying the Met lost some 25,000 subscribers, mostly from the New York City suburban area, who apparently are going to their local cinemas instead of the opera house. Do the broadcasts risk causing trouble from their success?

A: If you look deeper into those numbers a lot of those are really the older audience and we're really providing a service to those who may not have the physical means to get to get to New York anymore - we're extending the lifespan of opera lovers in a way.

Q: And are you reaching younger people too?

A: When I took over the Met, the average age of our audience was 65-years-old and a market survey showed them ageing at the rate of one year per year so it was heading toward extinction. We managed to reverse that trend. The average is a few years younger, I think it is 59 or 61, but it has gotten slightly younger and certainly HD is part of that. In some places the audience in the movie theatres is older than the audience opera house now but in other places it is younger. I know in Paris our French distributor Gaumont Pathe says that the audiences in Paris are very young. I think there and in Germany the audiences are quite young. Overall ... we've stopped the ageing of the audience. Obviously we can't stop people from getting old but we've stopped the increasingly elderly attendance.