Live from New York: Behind the curtain at the Metropolitan Opera's worldwide cinema broadcast
As the curtain rose and the male chorus of Giuseppe Verdi’s Ernani broke out in song on Feb. 25, 150,000 people were watching. Fewer than 4,000 people fit into the Metropolitan Opera’s theatre at New York’s Lincoln Center, but the Met’s Live HD broadcast brought the performance to people in 1,700 cinema theatres and 54 countries. From Seattle, Washington, to Moscow, Russia, each opera in the HD series is transmitted live—which means people begin watching the production as early as 10 a.m. and as late as 10 p.m. local time.
“In the same way sports fans would be much more interested in seeing a live sporting event rather than the taped result after the fact, fans are more interested in seeing a live performance,” Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, explains. “Not because they don’t know how the story turns out, because most operas are quite familiar, but because they don’t know what the performances are going to be like. You want to see whether your favorite stars hit their high notes. It’s the thrill of the live action.” Gelb feels that the Live HD program’s emphasis on “live” has contributed to the program’s immense success.
The Met’s Live HD transmissions represent a bright spot in both the opera and alternative-content worlds. “When I arrived at the Met seven years ago,” Gelb recalls, “the fear was that, at least in this country, opera was on the verge of extinction. It still had a loyal audience, but an aging audience.” In the growing area of alternative content in cinemas, the Met has been the unlikely star. Many theatres sell out of their premium-priced tickets well in advance. The program itself started with just 98 theatres in four countries. By the end of the first season, its distribution had grown to 480 screens in eight countries. For every theatre that showed the Met Opera series at the beginning of its first season, 16 more have joined in since.
For the Live HD performance of Ernani, I tagged along backstage and in the Live HD control room. At 11 a.m., two hours before the performance, the production team was blocking out the moves of the day’s host, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. She wore a different earring in each ear—they ended up going with the more sparkly one in her right ear—and practiced her walk for the pre-opera introduction. A teleprompter attached to a Steadicam cued her lines.
The first season of the Met featured hosts like Katie Couric, but as the format evolved in the second season, opera singers took on the task. During intermission interviews, the hosts can ask fellow singers questions that only someone intimately familiar with opera would know. Plus, performers prefer talking to one of their own. Most importantly, to my ear, DiDonato glides right over the kind of multisyllabic pronunciations that could trip up even the most experienced TV personalities, giving them their proper Italian and Russian lilts: composer, Giuseppe Verdi, stars Marcello Giordani and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and conductor Marco Armiliato.
The team watching the rehearsals behind the camera, which includes Gelb, wear mostly black and seem relaxed, except for an occasional contemplative furrow of the brow. DiDonato is “punchy,” still glowing after her Grammy win the week before. She’s squeezing the hosting gig into her busy schedule, having performed the night before in Philadelphia and scheduled for another performance in New York City this evening.
As the clock ticks closer to the 1 p.m. showtime, people don’t seem any more stressed than office workers. “You can only go so high, then you plateau. That’s what you work at, then you go home,” Doug Fogel, the television stage manager, confides, when I ask him to rate the stress level of the Live HD productions. He doesn’t seem fazed by anything that’s going on today. Then again, the Met Opera’s staff regularly puts on seven performances a week of four different productions. People have to adapt, or else they probably wouldn’t be in this business.
In front of the stars’ dressing rooms, performers and crew congregate in a lounge area before showtime. A television feed shows what’s going on onstage, and homemade cupcakes tempt passersby. Hvorostovsky, who is playing Don Carlo, comes out in costume to greet his wife and two children. Everyone backstage dotes on his two kids, who later appear for Live HD audiences during an interview with the singer after Act I. Twenty minutes before the curtain goes up, Armiliato, the ever-smiling conductor, gets up from the couch to change from his sweater into a tuxedo. His cheerful shrug suggests he is one of those people who avoids wearing formal dress any longer than they absolutely must.
During Act I, I stand in the eaves and watch soprano Angela Meade sing her first aria in Ernani. For a few brief moments, Meade’s vibrato sounds so ethereally perfect it seems unhuman. Her voice at these notes seems hard to place, then reminds me of a theremin, the electronic instrument often used in sci-fi movie scores. I mean this as a compliment, and the audience’s applause at the end of her solo tells me, an opera amateur, that whatever she did was very, very good. However routine the opera may be for the people backstage, the music still sometimes holds people under its spell. A man next to me softly hums to the music and taps his foot. A member of the chorus, still backstage, wafts his hand back and forth to the music, as if he were the conductor.
After tearing myself away from watching the performance in the eaves, I head to the control room. The giant trailer parked near the opera’s loading dock has ropes of cords attached to the roof which tent out to the building. Inside the cramped, dimly lit quarters, nearly a dozen people are riveted by a wall of TV monitors displaying eleven cameras: nine for the performance, and two for backstage. Only two people speak audibly. The associate director, Jay Millard, with a headset connected to the cameramen, calls out the shot number, specific to each camera, and camera number. “291 seven! 411 six!” Director Barbara Willis Sweete raps the table when she wants the technical director, Jon Pretnar, to switch the camera to the next shot. When they cut five or six times in quick succession, at key points in a piece, I get something of a contact adrenaline rush. All the camera movements have been planned out during a dress rehearsal beforehand. In the van, it’s execution that matters. Only during shots that are ten or fifteen seconds long can anyone even give out instructions, like a clipped “Pan slower!” or “Hold!” On the screen, I see a cameraman finish zooming his camera into place just a microsecond before his feed airs. When the team makes a particularly effective series of cuts, Pretnar calls out “Nice!” with the clipped finish of a courtside coach—the game isn’t over yet. The darkened van has the intensity of a war room, a marked contrast to the opera’s more relaxed backstage.
When viewers watch the Live HD transmissions, they get to see some of the behind-the-scenes magic. During a scene change during Act I, a Live HD camera gives a bird’s-eye view of the stagehands’ work. At intermission, a Steadicam follows the head carpenter, Steve Diaz, who has been fitted with a microphone. Audiences can hear him call out adjustments and coordinate the staff. The cameras make the changes look graceful, but on the ground everything feels more visceral. Backstage, people don’t worry about being loud. Sets are hammered and thwacked into place. Sections of the stage floor suddenly lift a foot, as a siren blares and a red flashing light gives warning. As the stagehands roll in one set, painters are still on board, giving it some final touchups with a paintbrush, a moment captured by the Live HD cameras.
In order to properly film the Live HD transmissions, small modifications have to be made to the actual show. Lighting must be adjusted so the cameras, which are less sensitive than the human eye, can pick up all the detail—nothing too light or too dark. A few seats are left empty on each side of the orchestra in order to create room for the cameras. Some of the cameras move, which could pose a distraction for the audience. “Because we’re producing the content for the stage, and also for the screen, I can make decisions,” Gelb says. “I can see how far I can push the envelope in terms of camera movements without disturbing the audience. It has to work for the audiences in the house and in movie theatres. I am the judge for how far we can go in both directions.” He notes that for a lot of audience members, seeing the cameras only serves to remind them that they are in the “epicenter of everything. They feel like they are at the Olympics of opera. They know the camera is there, and that they’re participating in an event that literally the whole world is peeking in on.”
The performers, too, put in their best efforts. “Performers are like athletes,” Gelb declares. “World records are usually set in the Olympics, and when the pressure is really on. Singers react the same way. They know that they are singing before a global audience. The adrenaline is flowing when they’re on the stage, because they know the camera’s on. They channel their excitement into positive energy.”
Who are these three million people a year who see the opera in the comfort of their local movie theatre? Gelb has received letters from people who could no longer make it to the Met in person, and “never thought they would go to the opera again. They’ve gotten a second lease on their opera-loving lives.” Seeing an opera in a movie theatre is less hassle, and the close-ups make the view better than a similarly priced seat in the actual theatre.
Gelb singles out three varieties of moviegoers he thinks attend the transmissions. In the minority are those who can’t make it to the opera anymore, as well those experiencing opera for the first time. The “primary audience for us is opera lovers who are interested in going to the opera and opera house. This provides an extra way of them experiencing that. It doesn’t take away from them coming here; it makes them more excited about coming here.”
In the U.S., the average ticket price for a Met Opera HD performance is $22, compared to the $8 average for a movie ticket. At least in the U.S., the shows play at off-peak times, something that’s supposed to reduce the pushback from movie studios who want to reserve the theatres for their latest blockbuster. They also attract new audiences to movie theatres. Gelb suspects there isn’t much crossover between the Live HD audiences and movie theatre audiences, except in the case of art films. However, for theatres that specialize in art-house programming, adding Live HD programming can solidify a theatre’s reputation as a one-stop shop for discerning entertainment, especially in places far from city cultural centers.
During the intermission after Act I, people in the opera house queue up for the long bathroom lines or for a glass of champagne—shockingly delicious for a house variety, but would the Met have it any other way? Those who bought their tickets to the cinema may not get to amble under the Met’s gold-gilded ceiling, but they have insider access that those seeing the opera in person don’t have. A pre-produced feature on Meade runs. DiDonato interviews the stars and the chorus master backstage. Cameras film the stagehands as they assemble and move the sets for the next act. Cinema audiences can watch all this while enjoying some fizzy Coke and popcorn. The magic of seeing the curtain rise is replaced by a peek into what’s behind it. It’s one of the many reasons why the Met Opera’s Live HD program has become the go-to place for opera lovers in need of an unlikely opera house.