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A Metropolitan Opera production streams into San Luis Obispo, California (PHOTO: MICHAEL WILLER)

Live from New York, It’s Mozart and Strauss

• January 04, 2013 • 4:00 AM

A Metropolitan Opera production streams into San Luis Obispo, California (PHOTO: MICHAEL WILLER)

Could simulcasts at your local theater save the high arts, or sink them?

A smattering of applause rang out from the auditorium of the San Luis Obispo, California Performing Arts Center just past 10 o’clock one recent Saturday morning. The clapping grew louder for a few seconds and then trailed off, reflecting the hesitance of the 400 or so patrons on hand. It’s not that they felt ambivalent about maestro Maurizio Benini, who was making his way to the pit of the opera house to conduct The Elixir of Love. But he was in New York City, and their view inside Lincoln Center came from watching a live, high-definition simulcast on a huge screen. Is applause appropriate when the artist you admire is on the other side of the continent?

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The Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series resumes at noon Eastern Time Saturday (Jan. 5) with Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz. This epic runs five hours and 20 minutes, so in spite of a superb cast led by Deborah Voigt, it’s not the perfect choice for first-timers.

The remainder of the simulcast season features:

Donizetti’s historical drama Maria Stuarda, Jan. 19.

Verdi’s ever-popular father-daughter tragedy Rigoletto, Feb. 16.

Wagner’s lengthy and mystical Parsifal, March 2.

Zandonai’s seldom-seen Francesca da Rimini, March 16.

Handel’s Giulio Cesare, another great historical drama, April 27.

All start at either noon or 12:55 p.m. Eastern Time, with the longer operas starting earlier. In most theaters, each opera is repeated once at 6:30 p.m. a few weeks after the original live simulcast. Visit The Metropolitan Opera for more information.

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Understandably, the etiquette for the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series remains uncertain. After all, this is only its third season in San Luis Obispo, a quiet college town halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Met has been adding locations steadily since its first simulcast—a family-friendly version of The Magic Flute—beamed into cinemas on Dec. 30, 2006; they’re now seen in more than 1,700 theaters in 54 countries. Sensing an opportunity, other opera companies, dance troupes and the National Theatre of Great Britain have followed suit. For arts patrons outside big cities, there is no longer any need to travel to attend a world-class performance—or even to settle for the handful of artists who happen to tour near you in a given year.

Like the radio, the LP and the DVD before them, HD-quality simulcasts have spawned both wonder and worry in the arts community. Will these shows stimulate interest in the art form, introducing it to new audiences attracted by the low cost and informality? Or will they satiate fans, dampening their desire to buy tickets to full productions, and ultimately dooming local companies? Worst-case scenario: America returns to the era before the regional arts boom of the 1960s and 70s (fueled by the National Endowment for the Arts), when culture was largely produced in New York City and exported.

“I don’t begrudge the Met their successes,” said musicologist Jim Steichen, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University who has been attending, and writing about, the Met’s opera-casts since their inception. “But they have missed an opportunity to be more of a leader. They do have tag lines at the end of the broadcasts saying, ‘Patronize your local opera company,’ but it’s really an afterthought.” He’s not kidding: During the October simulcast of The Elixir of Love, host Deborah Voigt barely paused for breath between making that perfunctory plea and asking patrons to financially support the Met itself.

While many members of the SLO audience milled about during her talk, the audience sat in rapt attention during a different between-scenes sequence, as the Act One set of the Donizetti comedy was rapidly but carefully replaced with a town square, the setting of Act Two. While there was no commentary accompanying the fascinating visuals, they conveyed the seductive notion that we were sharing insider knowledge—an idea that was heightened by a shot of the actual Met audience patiently waiting for the closed curtain to rise.

Much like those New Yorkers, arts administrators find themselves in the dark, fretting about how this rapidly growing trend will affect them. As Steichen notes, times are tough for virtually every opera company, but that could just be the bad economy; there’s very little research on what impact, if any, the simulcasts are having on ticket sales. Seattle Opera surveyed 1,750 of its ticket buyers in late 2010, asking about the Met simulcasts: 34 percent said they had attended at least one of the screenings, but only 2 percent said they were doing so “as a substitute for attending live Seattle Opera productions.” Encouraged, the company presented the first big-screen simulcast of one of its own productions this past May.

“People really enjoy themselves when they go, which is good for us,” explained Sue Elliott, the company’s education director. “They’re having a positive experience of opera.”

That sentiment is shared by Semyon Bychkov, who conducted the Met’s second Live in HD program of the season, Verdi’s Otello. “There is nothing wrong with making the art form available to as many people as possible, so long as the quality being offered is not substandard,” the Paris resident said as he recounted seeing one of the simulcasts in the Basque country, far from any opera house. “When we experience something good, something that is touching us, we can’t get enough of it. We need more of it. It is like a virus – a positive virus.”

Back in San Luis Obispo, Brian Asher Alhadeff, artistic and general director of Opera SLO, recalled his initial hesitancy in bringing the HD series to town. His is only one of a handful of companies that sponsors the simulcasts; in most cities, they are shown in cinemas that have no connection to the local opera. This is widely viewed as a win-win: the Met says it is turning a profit on the program, and local cinemas losing audiences to home-entertainment options fill an otherwise-empty auditorium (and sell some popcorn).

“I had my doubts,” Alhadeff said, “but I’m glad I didn’t stand too strongly behind them.” For his small company, they have been both a moneymaker (netting about $10,000 per year—not insignificant for an organization with a $250,000 annual budget) and a marketing opportunity. He introduces each of the HD performances—and reminds patrons they can experience live opera in person courtesy of his troupe.

It’s unclear how many will make that leap;  attending a live performance of this all-encompassing and thus expensive art form is far more expensive than seeing a simulcast, which costs $27 in SLO ( $12 for students). But Alhadeff pointed to a positive sign on the fund-raising side. “Several major donors started off as Met in HD audience members,” he noted. “They then moved up to a sponsor of Met in HD [a $2,500 commitment]. Then they gave a $10,000 donation to the [San Luis Obispo] opera.”

While no one was spotted writing six-figure checks, the Elixir of Love audience seemed satisfied with their experience. An informal survey found both opera aficionados and novices, with most people somewhere in between: One had attended an opera on a long-ago trip to London, but never since; another saw a production while vacationing in Santa Fe. These people were hardly in the opera-going habit, but when a friend or neighbor invited them to tag along, they were happy to do so. All reported they were enjoying themselves, would likely come back, and were open to attending a live production at some point.

So perhaps, rather than cannibalizing audiences, the simulcasts are helping casual music lovers make the leap from once-in-a-great-while to pretty-regular-patrons. If so, that deserves something more than scattered applause.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

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