Friday, August 28, 2009

Putting an Archive to Good Use

People in the information technology business have long sustained the joke that compares their stock-in-trade to that of the world's oldest profession: No matter how many times to sell it, you still have it to sell again. Perhaps if the well had not been poisoned by this kind of sophomoric humor, the world the Internet has made might now entertain a healthier attitude towards the marketing of archival material. This is particularly the case where digital capture has become part of the performing arts in so many different forms, since just about anything that becomes a digital document is, at the very least, a candidate for one or more digital archives. One may then address the question of how much of the content of any given archive should be marketed and by what means.

By virtue of its relationship with Texaco (which predated the technology of digital capture by far more than half a century), the Metropolitan Opera has accumulated one of the most prodigious archives of performances in its present and past opera houses. Texaco's support began with Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts and then progressed naturally into contribution to the sponsorship of the Live from the Met series on Public Television. However, the idea that any of this content could then be distributed after performance came relatively slowly. When I was a patron of the Met, I remember that selected broadcasts would get pressed on vinyl and offered as incentive gifts for generous donations; but I do not think these ever went on the general market. Similarly, the PBS video recordings seemed to be limited to supporting delayed broadcast on the West Coast and reruns during pledge weeks. It was only near the end of the last century that the Met made an arrangements with Deutsche Grammophon for distribution of some of this video content through videotape (and, subsequently, DVD).

All this is now changing; and it would appear that Peter Gelb, now general manager of the Met, has had much to do with the resulting changes. Gelb shifted the "live broadcast" experience from radio and Public Television to movie theaters, sweetening the offer by providing an HD signal that could be projected on movie screens without the distortions of a hyper-enlarged television image. When Gelb launched this project, it was viewed as a major gamble; but the signs are that his decision was a good one. Here is how Anthony Tommasini described the results in today's New York Times:

Now these broadcasts are seen around the world. At many movie theaters and performing-arts centers, tickets for the broadcasts are scooped up within hours of going on sale.

I was personally aware of this global impact the first time I attended a Met HDLive telecast. The opera was Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes; and there on the screen was a live interview taking place in front of a movie house in Aldeburgh, where Britten lived, founded a music festival, and was subsequently buried. There was something truly inspiring about the fact that I was sharing this moment with citizens of Britten's "home town;" and it was strong enough to transcend the absolutely dreadful job that Natalie Dessay performed in hosting the broadcast. Most important, however, is that I got "hooked" on these broadcasts; and, while I do not attend all of them, I have been more than pleased with the ones I have selected.

Having changed the way we could experience the Met in a "live" setting, Gelb and his team have now reviewed the value of the archive that has accumulated. The most important step in this direction was the launch of the Met Player, an on-line streaming service that offers both audio and video (including HD) material. I cited this service in my "Concerts on a tight budget in cyberspace" piece for However, I made it clear that I had not yet tested it and was recommending it because SF Opera Examiner Cindy Warner had told me about it. I subsequently received an invitation to test the service from the Met over a trial period, during which I was never able to get the Player to work. I had a good exchange with the technical team over my problems, but I have yet to have a successful experience with the technology. Nevertheless, since there may be eccentricities in my own computer configuration, I still feel it fair to recognize Cindy's positive experiences.

On the other hand it appears that Gelb has also decided to license at least some of his archival content to Classical TV, which is based in England but is definitely interested in cultivating an American audience. I have been following Classical TV for about a month; and, while they, too, have had to deal with technology-based impediments, I have been relatively happy with the service they are providing. Gelb has definitely been selective in what he has made available to them: There are nine operas from the archives of HD broadcasts, along with last season's opening-night gala. None of the pre-HD material, video or audio, is available through this service. However, since Gaetano Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment is one of the offerings, since that opera is part of the coming San Francisco Opera season, and since I much prefer Donizetti's comedies to his tragedies, I have every intention of viewing this one through Classical TV.

This brings me back to Tommasini's piece in today's Times. Gelb has selected Fille du Régiment to open a Summer HD Festival tomorrow night in Lincoln Center Plaza, where it will be screened for free, the first of ten programs of broadcasts selected from past HDLive events. In an interview Gelb made his intentions clear:

We hope it will be a summer diversion for opera lovers and whet the appetite for what is to come this season.

What is interesting is that the event may whet two different appetites, increasing audience share for both the Metropolitan Opera House and the movie theaters that host HDLive broadcasts. The same can be said for the general strategy of making archival material available through the Internet rather than letting it languish in a vault doing little more than gathering dust. Meanwhile, both the Zurich Opera and the English National Opera have begun to make some of their content available to Classical TV, allowing our appetites to be whetted on a global scale. Opera has now established its presence in cyberspace in a significant way by recognizing the value in its archives, and those of us who are opera lovers can only benefit from this trend.

No comments: