ArtsATL > Music > An interview with the Met’s Peter Gelb on HD Opera Broadcasts and their effects on Atlanta Opera

An interview with the Met’s Peter Gelb on HD Opera Broadcasts and their effects on Atlanta Opera

The Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon broadcasts, in high-definition movie theaters, open their fifth season this weekend with a new production of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold.”

“The Met: Live in HD” series is taking off, with more productions each season (12 this year), more screens (13 in metro Atlanta; see list below), a more international audience (1,500 screens in 46 countries) and a broader repertoire new and old, including John Adams’ “Nixon in China” and Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride.” Many of the productions are brand new and feature star singers, adding buzz even for well-traveled opera mavens.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Opera continues its run of “La Bohème” through October 10. With our hometown opera company feeling embattled and lacking robust community support, local opera fans might wonder how the media-savvy Met and its latest grab for audience will affect the local company, for better and worse.

In a recent phone conversation, I put the question to Met general manager Peter Gelb. “It’s not our intention to harm local companies,” he said.

A little history. New York’s Metropolitan Opera first visited Atlanta in 1901, again in 1905 and, except for world wars and the nadir of the Great Depression, presented an annual festival of opera in Atlanta until 1986. For most of the 20th century, the Met was Atlanta’s opera company. And, like an old-growth oak whose leaves shade out potentially competing seedlings, the Met tours arguably stifled the development of home-grown opera.

“I must admit I enjoyed the visits to Atlanta,” wrote Met general manager Rudolf Bing in his 1972 memoir, “5,000 Nights at the Opera.” “Never have I known a place to become so excited about opera.”

This is a story often told and that might hold some truth, for it was only after the Met stopped touring that William Fred Scott and Alfred Kennedy were able to build what became the Atlanta Opera. Within a few years, its performances were selling out the Fox Theatre, just as the Met had done on tour. (Top photo: Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Eric Owens as Alberich in “Rheingold.” Second photo: Wotan and Brünnhilde in “Die Walküre.” Photos courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.)

Perhaps echoing the “What’s good for General Motors is good for America” mind-set, Gelb told me: “Some [local groups] are very much in favor of what we’ve done and coordinate with the broadcasts. If you step back you’ll see the result of Met activities as only beneficial to opera. Look, it’s essential to the health of opera that the Met turn around and thrive. We’ve seen aging audiences and a serious lack of repertoire. That’s one problem with the art form: there are not enough good operas. The repertoire is much, much too narrow.”

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count di Luna and Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora in "Il Trovatore." Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Gelb’s initiatives include commissions for new works, hiring hip film directors to re-think classic works, and expanding the Met’s reach through various media strategies, including the HD broadcasts, which are hugely profitable. “We’re feeling a lot more positive about the future now than we were five years ago,” he said. “And, in fact, we make a point in the broadcasts to encourage people to visit their local opera companies.”

Atlanta Opera general director Dennis Hanthorn admits that “Some of my colleagues have a different opinion on the matter. But I feel the [Met’s HD] movie theater shows are like the old Texaco radio broadcasts: they’re great for building awareness that opera is alive and well.”

Still, the Atlanta “Bohème” performances are filling just 73 percent of capacity at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. That’s far from a sold-out run but, thanks to conservative projections, is within striking distance of Hanthorn’s budget. Ticket sales, however, are just part of the Atlanta Opera’s income. The larger, long-term questions concern fund-raising — a recent sore point in Atlanta — and what impact the starry, high-gloss Met in HD will have on support for a local company when the glamorous behemoth from New York is voraciously hungry.

Asked whether he’d been to New York to see the much-discussed “Rheingold” production by Cirque du Soleil’s Robert Lepage, the start of a new monumental “Ring” cycle, Hanthorn answered, “I haven’t, so I’ll check it out in the theater on Saturday. Why not? People get excited about opera. It’s like restaurants. When a good restaurant opens, it makes you want to eat out more. I don’t see it as a threat to our attendance.”

Here’s a list of metro Atlanta theaters showing the broadcasts and a list of the full 2010-11 Met broadcast season. (All these operas will also be heard on WABE 90.1 FM radio.) Note that the movie theaters are all in the suburbs, or exurbs, because the high-definition technology exists only in newer theaters.


Anna Netrebko as Norina in "Don Pasquale." Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Here’s the main website for tickets and info on the Met HD events.

Atlanta-area theaters:

North Point 8 in Alpharetta

Beechwood Stadium Cinemas 11 in Athens

Fork and Screen Buckhead in Atlanta

Perimeter Pointe 10 in Atlanta

Hollywood 24 @ North I-85 in Chamblee

Avenue Forsyth 12 in Cumming

Tinseltown USA in Fayetteville

Hollywood Stadium Cinemas in Gainesville

Barrett Commons 24 with IMAX in Kennesaw

Discover Mills 18 in Lawrenceville

Douglass Theatre in Macon

Merchant’s Walk Stadium Cinemas 12 in Marietta

Southlake Pavilion 24 with IMAX in Morrow

The Met: Live in HD 2010-11 Season (from the press release):

Saturday, October 9, 2010 DAS RHEINGOLD (1 p.m. ET)­ – Two unparalleled artists join forces to create a groundbreaking new Ring for the Met: Maestro James Levine and director Robert Lepage. Bryn Terfel, singing his first Met Wotan, leads the cast in Das Rheingold, the Ring’s first installment. NEW PRODUCTION


Claiming the gold, Eric Owens plays Alberich in "Das Rheingold"

Saturday, October 23, 2010 BORIS GODUNOV (12 p.m. ET) – Bass René Pape takes on one of opera’s most dramatic roles in a production by Stephen Wadsworth. Valery Gergiev conducts Mussorgsky’s tragic historical epic. Aleksandrs Antonenko and Ekaterina Semenchuk are among the other leading artists in a work that is also a showcase for the Met’s formidable chorus. NEW PRODUCTION


Saturday, November 13, 2010 DON PASQUALE (1 p.m. ET) – Anna Netrebko sings Norina, the role that made her a Met star, in this comedy by Donizetti, with Matthew Polenzani as Ernesto, Mariusz Kwiecien as Dr. Malatesta and John Del Carlo in the title role. James Levine conducts this opera for the first time.


Saturday, December 11, 2010 DON CARLO (12:30 p.m. ET) – Director Nicholas Hytner makes his Met debut with this new production of Verdi’s most ambitious opera. Roberto Alagna sings the title role, joined by Marina Poplavskaya as Elisabeth de Valois, Anna Smirnova as Princess Eboli, Simon Keenlyside as Rodrigo and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, back after his triumphant Met debut leading Carmen, conducts. NEW PRODUCTION

Saturday, January 8, 2011 LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST (1 p.m. ET) – Puccini’s Wild West opera stars all-American diva Deborah Voigt as Minnie and Marcello Giordani as Dick Johnson, under the baton of Nicola Luisotti. Lucio Gallo takes the role of Sheriff Jack Rance. The performances mark the 100th anniversary of the opera’s world premiere at the Met.

Saturday, February 12, 2011 NIXON IN CHINA (1 p.m. ET) – John Adams’ acclaimed first opera has its Met premiere, in a staging by longtime Adams collaborator Peter Sellars. Kathleen Kim is Chiang Ch’ing, Janis Kelly sings Pat Nixon, and James Maddalena reprises his acclaimed portrayal of the U.S. president, a role he created in the 1987 world premiere. Adams conducts.

Saturday, February 26, 2011 IPHIGÉNIE EN TAURIDE (1 p.m. ET) – Susan Graham sings the title role in Gluck’s masterful interpretation of the Greek myth, opposite Plácido Domingo as her brother Oreste and Paul Groves as his friend Pylade. Patrick Summers conducts.


Saturday, March 19, 2011 LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR (1 p.m. ET) – Natalie Dessay returns to her triumphant portrayal of Donizetti’s fragile heroine in the Met’s hit production, with Joseph Calleja as her lover Edgardo and Ludovic Tézier as her scheming brother, Enrico. Patrick Summers conducts.

Saturday, April 9, 2011 LE COMTE ORY (1 p.m. ET) – Rossini’s vocally dazzling comedy soars with bel canto sensation Juan Diego Flórez in the title role. He vies with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, in the trouser role of Isolier, for the love of the lonely Countess Adèle, sung by soprano Diana Damrau. Bartlett Sher, director of the Met’s popular productions of Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Les Contes d’Hoffmann, stages this Met premiere production. Maurizio Benini conducts. NEW PRODUCTION


Saturday, April 23, 2011 CAPRICCIO (1 p.m. ET) – Renée Fleming dazzled audiences when she sang Capriccio’s final scene on Opening Night of the 2008-09 season. Now she sings Strauss’ entire diva showcase in John Cox’s production, with Andrew Davis conducting.


Saturday, April 30, 2011 IL TROVATORE (1 p.m. ET) – David McVicar’s popular production returns with Marcelo Álvarez as the heroic troubadour of the title, with Dmitri Hvorostovsky as his powerful rival and Sondra Radvanovsky as the noble Leonora. Dolora Zajick reprises her interpretation of Azucena, the Gypsy fixated on past crimes and vengeance. James Levine conducts.

Saturday, May 14, 2011 DIE WALKÜRE (12 p.m. ET) – The second installment of Robert Lepage’s new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, conducted by James Levine, features Bryn Terfel as Wotan, while Deborah Voigt adds the part of Brünnhilde to her extensive Wagnerian repertoire at the Met. Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek star as the Volsung twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, and Stephanie Blythe is Fricka. NEW PRODUCTION

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