As far back as Karen Fitch can remember, The Grand theater in Ellsworth has never been so full as when they screened the high-definition, live transmission of the Metropolitan Opera’s gala opening performance on Sept. 22. The show featured world-renowned soprano Renee Fleming singing selections from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Massenet’s “Manon” and Strauss’ “Capriccio.”
“We had 20 seats left for the opening, and we can hold up to 480 in the entire theater. We’ve almost completely sold out the entire season,” said Fitch, box office and programming manager for The Grand. “People got all dressed up. We had a red carpet. It was just incredible to see that many people in here. And they came from all over — the Blue Hill peninsula, the Eastport area, Machias. It was amazing.”
The Met has been transmitting live HD satellite feeds of its season to theaters across the country since 2006. The new season continues at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, with a transmission of its production of Strauss’ “Salome,” featuring Finnish soprano Karita Mattila singing the challenging and sensual title role. Much to the surprise of nearly everyone, the transmissions have been a smash hit in nearly every theater in which they’ve been screened, all over the country.
“It’s been a phenomenal success,” said Donna Daley, executive director for The Strand Theatre in Rockland, now in its second season of transmitting the Met. “We’ve already sold out several shows. People were asking for it before we even started doing it. It’s by far the most popular programming piece that we’ve done so far. You wouldn’t have thought there were so many opera fans in Maine — but there are.”
Both The Strand Theatre and The Grand had to invest in the satellite equipment needed to pick up the feed, but both theaters already had the HD projectors needed to host the shows. Neither facility was sure that it would go over well — but both were very pleasantly surprised that it did.
“It was definitely a risk, because we didn’t know how popular it would be,” said Fitch. “But it’s turned out to be very, very profitable.”
It has been profitable for the theaters for the transmission and for the Met itself. Between 2001 and 2006, the Met experienced a decline in both ticket sales and in philanthropic donations. As is true across the board in classical music and opera, the Met was having a harder time attracting younger audience members, which in turn affected its ability to attract the opera megastars that typically would flock to the stage — stars such as Fleming, Natalie Dessay or Anna Netrebko.
Something had to be done. In 2006 the Met hired Peter Gelb, former CEO of Sony Classical, to helm the organization. Gelb was brought on board not just because of his experiences in artist management, but also for his marketing flair. Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, one of the first things he did on the job was to begin broadcasting the season in HD to select theaters across the country.
It was a logical step. The Met has broadcast its performances on the radio for the past 77 years, with an estimated 11 million listeners in 42 countries. It was also a lucrative step — according to figures gathered by the Met, in the first year about 325,000 people attended the broadcasts. For 2007-2008 attendance grew to 920,000, nearly triple the previous year.
“I don’t think even the Met realized how big this was going to get,” said Daley. “It’s just boomed.”
This year, it is expecting that more than 1 million people will watch all 11 operas in the Met season in crisp, clear, colorful HD, in more than 500 theaters across North and South America. Four of those theaters are in Maine — the Grand, The Strand Theater, the Lincoln County Theater in Damariscotta and Regal Theaters in Brunswick.
The satellite feeds employ robotic cameras, capable of capturing unique, up-close angles of the performers. Some audience members have said that it’s in some ways preferable to actually attending a live performance, as you get to see nuances and details that would be difficult to catch from a second floor balcony seat at Lincoln Center in New York City, the Met’s home.
“Everything is so clear and perfect looking. The sound is amazing,” said Fitch. “Experiencing something as massive as the Met Opera on a full screen is almost overwhelming. You really get the whole experience of it.”
For community-based organizations such as the Grand and The Strand Theater, it has provided a flow of cash and a newfound audience. While both facilities offer regular musical, theatrical and film programming, different events have different levels of attendance and profitability. In addition to the Met in HD, other satellite broadcasts have proved to be a boon. The transmission of a taping of NPR’s “This American Life” last fall, yearly events such as the Academy Awards and the Superbowl, and lectures such as Warren Buffet’s panel discussion after the screening of the documentary “I.O.U.S.A” were successful.
“It’s a struggle to survive. It’s not easy to keep a large theater in a small town open, especially these days, with the economy the way it is,” said Daley. “It’s things like this that are the future. A lot of theaters across the country are doing alternative programming and satellite feeds. It gives us an edge in the market, definitely.”
“There are so many things that could come of this,” said Fitch. “The possibilities are huge.”