10/12/2012 10:28 am ET Updated Dec 11, 2012

Peter Gelb On HD Live, His Controversial Gamble At The Met

When the curtain comes up on the Saturday matinee performance of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, about a quarter of a million people will be watching the action live thanks to an innovative and risky gamble Peter Gelb took six years ago. If opera lovers in the far corners of the earth can't come to the Met, then the Met can go to them through cyberspace.

For the start of the seventh season of its Live in HD series, the Met is offering one of the most enduring of all comic operas starring Anna Netrebko as the beautiful landowner, Adina, and Matthew Polenzani as her peasant suitor, Nemerino. It's an enchanting tale of how a bottle of Bordeaux wine helps the cause of true love, and it will be transmitted live to some 1,900 theaters in 64 countries around the globe, from Abu Dhabi to Uruguay.

The enormous popularity of the Live in HD has been an uphill climb. When Gelb started the series in 2006, his first year as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, a total of 98 theaters in four countries showed a performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute. By the end of that season, the number of participating theaters had climbed to 480 and the total attendance was 325,000. Six years later more than 3 million people are expected to watch a dozen live Met performances in their local theaters. At the outset, however, there were a lot of raised eyebrows.

"There was a general feeling that I must be crazy," Gelb said in a recent interview in his office at Lincoln Center. "Many doubted it would work. There was a huge expense involved in getting it started and we needed to hit a certain level of attendance before it would pay off."

A big part of that expense were a dozen high-def cameras, including a robotic camera that moves along the edge of the stage, to relay the performance via eight satellites across 12 different time zones, from California to Russia. The programs, which include trips backstage with handheld cameras to watch stagehands move scenery between acts as well as interviews with the singers as they come offstage, are shown in delayed transmissions in Asia and Australia. On-screen subtitles are provided in seven languages for the live broadcasts and in Chinese, Japanese and Korean for the delayed shows.

Before any of that could take place, however, Gelb had to sell his idea not only to the movie houses, ranging from multiplexes to indie art houses, but also to the singers. But Gelb, whose career in music began as a teenage usher at the Met and included stints as Vladimir Horowitz's manager, a press agent for the Boston Symphony, and head of Sony Classical worldwide, is nothing if not a salesman.

"From the start, we told the theaters that we were not looking to attract movie audiences but opera audiences," Gelb said. "U.S. theater owners were reluctant to give up their lucrative Saturday matinee time slots for the latest hit movie. In Europe, because of the time difference, they lost Saturday evening screenings. We urged them to think of it more as a live sporting event or a reality show, as a reality operatic show."

"We had to convince the performers as well," he added. "Knowing you are singing for that many people around the world naturally increases the stress level. But the leading performers we approached were all enthusiastic. They knew it would be very good for them. The best performers do their best when the stakes are the highest. They're like star athletes who do their best at the Olympics."

The impetus for the Live HD series came from the continuing popularity of the Met radio broadcasts of Saturday matinees over the past half century. "If it weren't for that, we would never have taken the risk," Gelb said.

And the motives were not purely financial, though the series began to break even sometime in the second or third season and now brings in about $20 million a year to help with the Met's annual budget of some $300 million. Gelb hopes the availability of opera in movie houses and other venues also will attract a younger audience.

"Although the target audience is opera lovers around the world, we are also trying to create opera audiences of the future," Gelb explained. "The fact that opera's popularity has existed for centuries doesn't mean that it always will be going forward."

"Modern opera has to relate to modern aesthetics and it is up to us to make opera as accessible as we can," Gelb said. "Opera has to fight for its stake in our culture."
Part of Gelb's game plan for rejuvenating opera has been to hire accomplished theater directors for new productions, including Nicholas Hytner, Richard Eyre, Mary Zimmerman, and Barlett Sher to name a few. One result has been an increased emphasis on singers who can also act.

"We don't want to compromise theater to opera," Gelb said. "It is equally dangerous to produce operas that are stuck in the past, when singers would simply walk out to the center of the stage and belt out a high C, or that is so modern as to ignore the basic storytelling."

By all accounts, the Live in HD series is succeeding on all fronts. There are reports of audiences breaking into applause and shouting "Bravo" to singers on the screen, just as though they were sitting at the Met hearing the performance in person. And with an exciting lineup of a dozen operas being shown this season, starting with L'Elisir d'Amore and continuing with Renee Fleming in Otello on Oct 27, there is no danger of its popularity peaking anytime soon.