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When the curtain came.

down on the Metropolitan Opera's final Live in HIS movie transmission in April, General Manager Peter Gelb's bold initiative had reached a landmark. Over just six seasons, the broadcasts have attracted a global audience of 10 million. Just to put that into theatrical perspective--if the Met played to full houses every day of the year at Lincoln Centre, it would take almost seven years to reach the same number.The estimated audience for that final Traviata alone approached half a million, and it grossed US$2.4 million in movie ticket. sales in North America alone.


When we asked readers for their views of the movie phenomenon a couple of issues back, we got some interesting responses. Most were enjoying the transmissions, welcoming them as convenient, inexpensive and perhaps their only means of experiencing a Met live performance. There are, to be sure, those who adamantly now stay away after a few tries, put off by such factors as poor sound and the endless closeup views. But overall, audiences seem to take live opera at the movies as a very positive development.

The question of what effect the virtual digital opera season has had on the real theatrical season is less clear-cut. In the best of all possible worlds, people who enjoy opera at the movies will want to enrich their experience by buying tickets to opera in the theatre. Gelb likes to argue that a rising tide raises all ships--meaning that the popularity of his inititative can only help everyone by creating awareness and demand for opera. But a rising tide can sink ships, too, and the truth is that we don't know what's happening at this point.

There's no doubt about the size and vitality of the audience for the broadcasts, but we really still don't understand what the growth of this audience means for the opera business. There is anecdotal evidence of some negative trends, with even Gelb conceding that the transmissions may have cannibalized the Met's box office sales, particularly among patrons living in communities outside New York. But hard data about the effects one way or the other is hard to come by.

Opera America, which styles itself as "the national service organization for opera," is currently undertaking a study of audience dynamics in the movie theatres and the effects on opera theatres. This follows up a 2008 study that focused mainly on the cinema audiences and reactions to the program. While any serious study is welcome, I wonder whether this one, which includes only a few of our companies, will shed much light on the Canadian experience. Because of our geography and population dynamics, not to mention economics and funding models, it will be hard for a broad North American survey to capture the very specific regional experiences of our companies.

A couple of Canadian studies are already available. Opera Lyra Ottawa. conducted its own small-scale local study in 2011, while Stephan van Eeden, a graduate student at University of British Columbia, made a quite detailed preliminary study in 2009 of the impact of Live in HD on local theatre audiences in Vancouver for his Master's thesis. Both documents show interesting results. OLO, for example, found that 30% of the movie audience were its subscribers, 40% were lapsed subscribers and 30% were first-time operagoers. Eeden, meanwhile, found evidence that Live in HD was building its own dedicated audience, which preferred opera in that format. We'll take a look at these studies in more detail in an upcoming article.The point here is that we surely need more such studies focusing on our opera industry from east to west to understand the issues than partial participation in broader study on a north-south
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Title Annotation:Notebook
Author:Gooding, Wayne
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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