Met's success has orchestras tuning up their simulcasts

Bryan Hymel and Christine Rice star in the Royal Opera's "Carmen in 3-D." Opera's visual intensity gives it an advantage over symphonic simulcasts.
Bryan Hymel and Christine Rice star in the Royal Opera's "Carmen in 3-D." Opera's visual intensity gives it an advantage over symphonic simulcasts.
Posted: March 10, 2011

The idea keeps catching on - even if audiences are still catching up.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is preparing for its second live movie-theater simulcast on Sunday - only a week after Carmen in 3-D leapt from London's Royal Opera and a few weeks before the English National Opera's 3-D Lucrezia Borgia arrives on DirecTV. More quietly, the Philadelphia Orchestra continues on an alternate route, eschewing satellite technology for the Internet in the seventh of a series of nine simulcasts March 20.

The music world can't help but be dazzled by the Metropolitan Opera's recently released simulcast numbers: The nine transmissions in the 2009-10 season sold 2.4 million tickets, grossed $48 million, and eventually made a net profit of $8 million for the opera company.

Yet the question of translating 19th-century art into a 21st-century visual culture remains unanswered for symphony orchestras, especially Los Angeles', which follows in the Met's footsteps with simulcasts in 450 of the same theaters - without the Met's eye candy or culturally ingrained tradition of Saturday-afternoon radio broadcasts.

"Costumes, tenors and animals, that's an easy translation to a visual form," said Los Angeles Philharmonic president Deborah Borda. "We have a different kind of product . . . but it's a work in progress and we'll develop it over time." Her trump cards are the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Hall and conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who has screen presence and more name recognition than any conductor since Leonard Bernstein.

The first simulcast in January was an all-orchestral program of John Adams and Beethoven hosted by TV, stage and recording star Vanessa Williams. On Sunday, the music is inspired by Shakespeare and enjoys a marketing synergy with a just-released, Dudamel-conducted CD of the same program. Thanks to its close proximity to Hollywood, Sunday's simulcast will feature Shakespearean characterizations by the likes of Orlando Bloom and Malcolm McDowell.

"We've done quite a few TV shows, and at this point, it makes sense for us," said Borda after the January simulcast. "Will we change the future? We might. I've gotten close to 100 texts from people throughout the country talking about how good the sound was."

However, attendance figures aren't being released. And in the U.S. symphony world, it's a bandwagon of one. Though the New York Philharmonic and the Minnesota Orchestra are also riding high thanks to charismatic music directors, they're sticking closer to what they know - audio technology. The Berlin Philharmonic is indeed a visual experience with Simon Rattle at the helm, but it offers live and on-demand video streaming to home computers in subscriptions that average about $22 a concert.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has experimented for years with Internet-based simulcasts, and has now evolved to a season of nine - but in only 75 or so venues across the country, in places like Amherst, Mass., and Oberlin, Kan. Half are independent movie theaters such as the Bryn Mawr Film Institute (now a partner of the producers, SpectiCast), which charge about $20. Other venues are senior citizen communities, which often break even with a $10 admission because the only technological requirement is a small cable TV-style signal box, rented for $300, as opposed to a satellite dish.

Though symphonic simulcast production costs run into the six figures and operatic ones are easily $1 million, the Philadelphia Orchestra has only 30 percent of the usual costs because Verizon Hall is already equipped with robotic cameras, said Stephen Millen, vice president and orchestra general manager. "We're the envy of the orchestra world for having all of this technology in the hall," he says.

Yet technology is only the starting point - especially with matters from promotional to legal still catching up. The star power of simulcasts can be, in some cases, muted by the varying requirements of media clauses. Emerging artists - such as the leading tenors for the two 3-D opera productions, Academy of Vocal Arts graduates Bryan Hymel in Carmen and Michael Fabiano in Lucrezia Borgia - welcome such exposure.

However, the varying limitations on artists' control over how and where their performance is marketed after the simulcast is reported to be an increasing point of contention, especially in opera. While assessing Philadelphia Orchestra concerts for possible simulcast, SpectiCast president Mark Rupp is occasionally warned away from artists with media clauses and limited patience for intermission inteviews. Los Angeles's first program was all-orchestral, says Borda, to establish an identity. But she also avoided establishing a precedent of superstars such as Lang Lang.

With some simulcasts, word isn't getting out, or at least not to the right people. Though the Philharmonic had promotional partnering with 70 orchestras across the country, Philadelphia-area attendance appeared to be thin, fewer than 40 people in two of the area theaters. Ditto for Carmen in 3-D: Publicity efforts were directed toward the film world rather than the opera community. As for Lucrezia Borgia, the specialized DirecTV has only vague references to an April broadcast on its website.

The main local commercial venue for the Philadelphia Orchestra simulcasts is the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, where executive director Juliet Goodfriend reports that attendance is 90 on a good day - in a theater that seats 350. She'd love a promotional boost from the orchestra and SpectiCast. It's here that the orchestra's current state of transition gets in the way of a clear simulcast prognosis.

Verizon Hall is as photogenic as Los Angeles's Disney Hall. And however glamorous Vanessa Williams was in January, Philadelphia public TV veteran Willo Carey has more live-on-camera polish. However, Philadelphia's counterpart to Dudamel, ebullient music director-designate Yannick Nézet Séguin, isn't yet a full-time presence. Also, the Philadelphia Orchestra's current preoccupation with financial challenges means that simulcast promotion is neglected.

"We help a little bit," says Millen, "but not as much as we would . . . if our live-experience [audience] numbers hadn't been declining. That's our primary concern."

Yet Philadelphia simulcasts don't have the kind of expectations that come with Los Angeles' network of 450 North American theaters. With a lower overhead, can independent art-house theaters such as Bryn Mawr Film Institute hold out until the orchestra's situation stabilizes and marketing mechanisms are in place? Goodfriend's answer: "Yes."


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.


The "LA Phil LIVE" simulcast is carried by seven area movie theaters at 5 p.m. Sunday. Information: www.fandango.com. The Philadelphia Orchestra simulcast at 2 p.m. March 20 is carried by the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, 610-527-9898 or www.brynmawrfilm.org.

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