By Hadleyblogger Drew
Tomorrow marks the start of the Metropolitan Opera's 76th radio broadcast season with Mozart's Idomeneo. (Not, I trust, the production offered by the Berlin Opera.) As it does, one might wonder whether it is the last season for the Met on broadcast radio.
The Saturday matinee broadcasts of the Met have been an institution for generations. Many, including yours truly, got their first taste of big-time opera listening to the Met on Saturday afternoons. For years Texaco was the title sponsor of the broadcasts, until (after their merger with Chevron) their bottom-line mentality, in the best tradition of modern Corporate America, got the better of them and they dropped their sponsorship. Things looked bleak then, but the Met was able to find new funding, and the broadcasts continued.
Where, then, is the threat coming from this time? Oddly enough, from the Met itself. This year the Met introduced two revolutionary additions to their broadcast schedule: the introduction on Sirius of Met Opera radio (four live broadcasts a week plus historic performances), and, later this month, the debut of live HD broadcasts in movie theaters nationwide.
So on one hand this is good news indeed, as Met broadcasts are now more available than ever before. (Whether the Met itself merits the title of America's opera company is a question for another day.) The downside, then, would appear to be the potential loss of free, over-the-air, broadcasts - the Sirius channel requires a monthly subscription, and tickets for the theater simulcasts will run about $15 a pop.
But let's not kid ourselves - classical music itself has been marginalized in our crass modern culture, and opera is perhaps the most marginalized within that genre. It's getting harder and harder to find classical music on the radio (even on public radio, which always falls back on the "you can only get it here" mantra whenever it tries to extort more taxpayer money). The free market, the law of supply-and-demand, suggests that the entrepreneur will always find ways to meet the need, and from that standpoint the Met seems to have done pretty well. One could argue that by going the pay-access route, the Met is giving its fans what they want - more (and better) live broadcasts, not to mention access to its vast archives. Terry Teachout, in a piece I can't put my hands on at the moment, forecast such a possibility years ago. So in that sense, we could be about to enter the golden era of Met broadcasting.
(And, speaking of public radio and the law of unintended consequences, one wonders if the loss of the Met on broadcast radio would have an impact on NPR's fundraising, since public radio accounts for most of the stations carrying the broadcasts. Will the opera listeners who used to pony up during the pledge breaks now save their money for a Sirius subscription? The thought almost makes it all worthwhile.)
But if that's the case, I'll still mourn the loss of the Saturday matinees. Not for myself, because I'll probably wind up doing whatever I have to do in order to the the level of access I want. But I do wonder how many people receive a fleeting, casual introduction to opera by surfing the radio dial and happening upon one of the broadcasts? It might not stick with them right then and there, that first time - maybe it's the second or third time, when they leave the station on just a little bit longer, enough to hear Domingo nail that final note, to thrill to the cheers of a live audience, to catch the sense of drama that even a radio broadcast of an opera can provide. There is, after all, a big difference between fulfillment and education. The Met on satellite and HD may cater to the opera fan, but will it still ensnare the accidental listener? As is so often the case, I suppose time will tell.