More Operas at the Movies: I Is Very Happy!

New York Times: Met Has New Rival in Operas at Movies

Published: December 19, 2007

It’s an arms race out there in opera land.

The San Francisco Opera on Tuesday announced its own plan to transmit operas to movie theaters using a system it says is superior to that of the Metropolitan Opera, which pioneered the practice in the United States last year.

The San Francisco house said it would broadcast six operas a year, starting in March, and reach 200 screens, about the same number as the Met began with last season. The much larger and busier Met now appears on about 600 screens and transmits eight productions a year.

Opera houses around the world are moving toward expanding audiences in as many electronic ways as possible: through Internet streaming and downloads, in DVD sales, on television on demand and, most dramatically, in movie theaters.

The Met has taken the lead, but the Washington National Opera is transmitting to college campuses, and La Scala is showing rebroadcasts in American theaters. The Royal Opera in London is also working on a movie plan.

The Met’s latest broadcast, Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” on Saturday, drew an audience of 97,000 worldwide, its highest yet, the house said. With gross weekend sales of $1.65 million, the broadcast would have been No. 11 at the movie box office.

San Francisco Opera officials said they would use the digital format increasingly chosen for Hollywood feature films, pointing out that the Met mainly uses projection systems used for advertising in movie theaters.

The San Francisco house is working with the Bigger Picture, a distributor of digital entertainment in cinemas, including films, anime and concerts. The Bigger Picture is a subsidiary of Access Integrated Technologies Inc., a major installer of digital systems. It said it had installed them in about 3,700 of the nation’s movie theaters, which total roughly 36,000.

In publicity materials the San Francisco Opera said, “the quality is clearly better on digital-cinema-quality projectors,” compared with the Met’s broadcasts, but otherwise deferred comments on the issue to Jonathan Dern, a co-president of the Bigger Picture.

“It looks better, it sounds better and it is the standard for digital cinema,” Mr. Dern said. The operas are expected to begin in all of the 50 leading markets, he said.

But the Met and San Francisco differ in one crucial area: The Met shows its operas live. San Francisco will transmit them after the fact.

“Being live is at the heart of our approach because we’re creating basically satellite opera houses,” said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager. “That’s what makes this more than a canned experience.” Mr. Gelb also said the Met had gone into movie theaters before the Digital Cinema technology began spreading.

Mr. Gelb, in a later e-mail message, called the San Francisco plan admirable but said it did not “approach what the Met has achieved.”

He added, “They are planning to be in some theaters in secondary markets which have more modern projectors, but their programs are not going to be live, and they are being produced on a significantly lesser scale.”

David Gockley, the San Francisco Opera’s general director, said the Bigger Picture thought giving exhibitors a say over when to program the operas would increase their success.

“We like the idea of being able to edit and post-produce and basically offer an alternative to the live format,” Mr. Gockley said.

In both cases, the houses had to renegotiate contracts with their unions to be allowed to transmit performances. The Met provides guaranteed advance payments and the promise of sharing future electronic earnings to its musicians and chorus members.

The San Francisco Opera starts sharing its proceeds 50-50 from the start, after taking 20 percent for costs, “so it would be completely transparent what they would get, from Dollar 1,” Mr. Gockley said.

The San Francisco Opera said its existing production technology made it easier to distribute earnings from the start, rather than calculating income after costs.

Mr. Gockley said the broadcasts would run from March through November and suggested that competition would be minimized because the Met broadcasts do not start until December. The San Francisco’s tickets will cost $18. The Met’s average $21. With specific dates still undetermined, San Francisco said there would be four showings each of Puccini’s “Rondine,” Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalila,” Mozart’s “Zauberflöte” and “Don Giovanni,” “Appomattox” by Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton, and then Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”

Mr. Gockley gave credit to the Met for leading the way.

“The Met broke through and did this and proved to me beyond a doubt that this was a really magnificent way to make opera available more broadly,” he said. “We’ve been looking for that breakthrough for years, and one that would pay. We might have gotten around to it, but what they did was fantastic.”

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