Friday, December 8, 2006

Saturday Matinees

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.


  1. Drew: I could not agree more. I, too, developed my love of opera listening to the Saturday Met broadcasts.

    It is a sign to me that I did not even realize that tomorrow is the season debut! I have adjusted my sources for opera. I listen to the Sirius station or I can occasionally catch a production via Internet Radio stations.

    I wish more companies (including our local MN Opera and MN Orchestra) had more productions broadcast.

    The loss of the MET broadcast on public radio will ensure that the fan base remains higher income. Eventually, it will become even more exclusive and inaccesssible.

  2. Cathy,

    I think you're exactly right. While I share Drew's belief that this can be good for Met fans as a whole, it also ensures that opera will continue to be seen as an "elitist" institution for the arts and croissants crowd. Which is a pity.


  3. One thing about the potential move to Sirius I don't think I have heard anyone discuss, and I must describe the economics of a move to Sirius.

    The model for satellite radio is very similar to cable television. In a cable television service model, each channel charges the provider a per-subscriber fee.

    Such is the reason for annual rate hikes, as Disney tacks on another dollar to the fee for ESPN, this time to move NASCAR's prestigious Allstate 400 to ESPN, while giving the battling IndyCar and Champ Car series exposure on ABC during the summer, while NASCAR gets nothing during the regular season in their section. (As an aside, this gives the Allstate 400 the least-watched event of the three at Indianapolis Motor Speedway; the 500 is on ABC and the USGP on Fox.)

    Each channel charges the cable firm a fee for every subscriber to get the channel.

    The Metropolitan Opera is looking at Sirius as a revenue maker; they can charge a decent per-subscriber fee for Sirius to put it on "basic" satellite radio. The contract is with 5 million subscribers, and if the Met can charge Sirius a 50 cents per subscriber fee, that's $2.5 million there. Add some ads during certain shows (not performances, but magazine features, et al) and advertising through other Sirius channels, it could be a huge revenue maker.

    This model is similar to cable television.

    Just for the record, the South Carolina Philharmonic had over 2,200 for the recent performance of Handel's Messiah and 2,400 (full) for January's Mozart Makes a Wish. The Mozart event had a next-week broadcast on public television, and the Messiah is slated for broadcast on Christmas night on public radio.

    Of course, the numbers were great, but I wonder what will happen.

    I saw a promotional brochure for our church's Christmas programme (which I am not participating) and saw the emphasis is on the teens dancing to pop tunes. The singers, who are singing to karaoke, are a small role when you consider the leader loves pop dance. There are more people concerned that the switch to karaoke pop is ruining church music because we are no longer developing anyone to sing or play music.

    After church on the day after Messiah, I talked with a friend who said the church was not developing young musicians such as what is needed for big projects. That morning, the music came from kids dancing to another modern rock tune. I questioned the leader's commitment to our music programme with his visits to non-music events and having teens dancing to pop/rock treated as church music, and how our choir has been mistreated, and how he will not develop church musicians. I also asked if 25 years of MTV has influenced younger generations to dispose of centuries of church music in favour of trendy pieces which fall quickly.

    That proved its point Sunday night as I had free time to prepare for my voice lesson. One teen came to my and said teens didn't want classical music because it did not have a beat, and they only want to dance to pop/rock and hip-hop tunes for church music because skill is not a necessity. They do not want to sing in church.

    Such trends are hurting events such as symphony orchestras and operas.

    Church Music is not seeing a group of popular teens dancing to a pop tune off secular (not Christian) radio, which is favoured by the big labels, and nothing else. Music is not singing to a karaoke disc of rock tunes off the positive hits station. We aren't teaching anything anymore because of the Dewey Education System. It's clear our music minister is currently turning away from music and focusing on trends. At this rate our church choir will die quickly and the rise of the latest rock/pop tunes will become the only music in our church. That isn't good.

    This affects classical music in all counts and has led to some kids in church publicly blasting me.


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