Like for a big rock concert, Swiss opera fans were determined not to miss out on The Met’s new mega-production of Das Rheingold that opened on Saturday.
The thousands of cinema tickets for Richard Wagner’s opera, and 11 other live high definition (HD) broadcasts of performances by the Metropolitan Opera of New York to movie theatres around the world, were snapped up in a single morning.
Live and pre-recorded opera, classical concerts, ballet and theatre, shown in cinemas around the world by The Met and other big-name companies, is a hugely competitive new business.
Switzerland is one of 46 countries broadcasting the 2010-2011 season of “The Met: Live in HD”, which has been going from strength to strength since its launch in 2006.
On Saturday thousands of Swiss opera fans were expected to dress up for a special night at the cinema in Bern, Basel, Zurich, Geneva and Lausanne to witness the ambitious, high-tech production of the first instalment of Wagner’s monumental four-part Ring cycle, conducted by James Levine.
To meet the growing demand from local fans, the organisers have added extra capacity for the third Swiss season of live broadcasts, explained Teodor Teodorescu, director of the Pathé Romandie cinema chain.
“The 460 tickets for Balexert cinema [in Geneva] sold out in just two hours,” he told swissinfo.ch. “We could have added a second cinema in Lausanne, but there were none available.”
Teodorescu said he was surprised by the initial success, as the first three broadcasts of the first season were not very busy, but then “things just took off”.
The Pathé chain purchased the rights from the French firm CielEcran. The live satellite signal is captured by a dish on the roof of each cinema, decoded and broadcast on digital high-definition projectors using top image and sound quality.
Since the first live HD broadcast of Mozart’s Magic Flute in December 2006 to 56 theatres in four countries, “The Met: Live in HD”, has continued to expand worldwide.
This new season - its fifth – the opera is featuring 12 live transmissions and expects to top the number of tickets sold last year for live Met performances in movie houses worldwide – 2.4 million.
This is three times the numbers who attend performances at the New York opera house during a typical season.
The project has become a real money-spinner. Last year’s nine transmissions, each costing approximately $1 million (SFr960,000) to produce, sold $48 million of tickets, with the Met receiving 50 per cent of the gross box office revenues.
Larger than life
The Met’s live broadcast concept was initiated by Peter Gelb, the Met’s director, with the aim of making opera more accessible and popular, bringing in new, younger audiences, and re-invigorating the profession.
“Gelb felt the live broadcasts in cinemas would both capture the larger-than-life feeling of opera via the big screens and generate a community feeling among the audience,” Brent Ness, the Met’s press officer, told the Le Temps newspaper.
The cinema-going opera audience is “a mixed community”, said Teodorescu.
“A large part of them are true opera fans who also go to performances at the Grand Théatre Opera in Geneva, for example, but we also have young people who’ve never been to the opera before.”
The cinema chain tries to recreate a traditional opera night out with a glass of champagne thrown in with the price of a ticket, numbered seats, a cloakroom and food during the interval.
“It’s totally silent during the show and then the audience clap between songs, like at the opera, but there’s no popcorn,” the director joked.
These kind of live broadcasts are good for popularising opera, for letting fans hear big-name singers they wouldn't be able to pay to see, or for people who live in places where there is no local opera house, said Eric Vigie, the director of the Lausanne Opera.
But they shouldn’t make people believe it’s real opera, he told swissinfo.ch
“It’s a synthetic product like film and the sound quality is different,” he commented.
However, Lausanne Opera, like a growing number of other companies, has decided to test the water in this interesting new market.
Their performance of Charles Lecocq’s La Fille de Mme Angot on December 31 will be broadcast live in French cinemas via the Swiss national TSR television channel.
Lausanne joins The Met, Milan’s La Scala, London’s The Royal Opera House, Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, the Paris Opera Ballet and Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, the Shakespeare Globe and others, who are branching into live and pre-recorded showings in cinemas around the world.
“It’s a global craze,” said Gaëlle Lefebvre, who is in charge of the international market for the distributor CielEcran. “The market is inundated at the moment. It’s not that profitable right now as the market is new, but it will be in the next few years.”
Switzerland’s big opera houses include the Grand Théatre de Génève, the Lausanne Opera, the Opernhaus Zurich, the Luzerner Theater, the Theater Basel and the Stadttheater Bern.
In recent years unusual outside productions of opera have become more common, including a television production of Giacomo Puccini's opera La Bohème in September 2009 in a suburb of the Swiss capital, Bern and this year’s Aida on the Rhine from Basel.
In 2008 Swiss television produced Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata in Zurich's main railway station. Apart from being shown on three Swiss television channels, the performance was also live on the Arte culture broadcaster in French and German.
The Met: Live in HD
The season began on October 9 with the new production of Das Rheingold, the first of the season’s two installments of Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs), starring Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, conducted by James Levine.
The Ring’s second instalment, Die Walküre, will close the season on May 14, 2011.
The 12-show season features four other new productions: Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Verdi’s Don Carlo, John Adams’s Nixon in China, and Bartlett Sher’s new production of Rossini’s Le Comte Ory.
The season features singers such as Susan Graham, Plácido Domingo, Natalie Dessay, Renée Fleming, Patrick Summers and Andrew Davis.