Saturday, August 27, 2016

HD Handwringing

Hello there.

I read Anne Midgette's balanced check-in on HD broadcasts back in July but didn't say anything about it. Lisa Hirsch has brought it up again, however, so I guess I'll take a crack.

The complaints about the HD casts (of which I am an occasional consumer) have always struck me as both excessively gloomy and unsupported by any credible data. The question of whether HD is cannibalizing live attendance at the Met or other venues is vastly more complex than, say, whether Fage is cannibalizing Chobani. A live opera performance and an HD cast are vastly different products with vastly different "transaction costs" and uptake of the HD casts over the same time period as Met ticket sales have been hurting proves nothing.

Francesca Zambello's alarmist statements in that article aside, my experience with HD in the DC area suggests a plausible story that doesn't involve cannibalization. The elderly crowds that turn up for the broadcasts bear some resemblance to the crowd in the Kennedy Center, but I highly doubt would turn up for live WNO performances. They are the lazy elderly (not a knock, they are still showing more initiative than demographics half their age) for whom a drive downtown and dealing with parking, especially on a weeknight, is not an experience on which they want to spend several hundred dollars. The choice is not between a live show and an HD cast, but between a live show and staying home. The HD cast is gravy.

As for the actual live operagoers I know, the HD casts very clearly reside in a separate bucket. These are folks who have a clear quota of live performance attendance, some of which may be spent on opera, some of which may be spent on straight theater or other music. They gauge their interest in the WNO's offerings for the year and decide how much of that quota is going to opera. If they also head to an HD cast on a Saturday afternoon, its a very different type of activity.

But whether or not there is really some substitution going on here, I can't quite get over the very clear artistic-moral imperative for the HD casts. This is going to sound like the Met press releases I fear, but the HD casts need to be thought of in the context of the Met radio broadcasts in the 1930s, which was truly one of the most important milestones in the history of high culture in the 20th century. The dividends it has paid in the longevity of opera and in lives touched and moved by art is incalculable.

Now, there are some clear differences between the radio broadcasts and the HD program up to this point. At $25 or so a pop, the price is cheaper than a live performance but still a lot more than "free," and there are only so many seats in the movie theaters where the broadcasts occur (and apparently PBS only thinks the tristate area (maybe Boston?) is worthy of classical performance programming). Barriers to entry are also relatively high for the wonderful HD on demand streaming service. Anyone who has agonized about the Met's business predicaments can certainly understand the logic to turning a profit on these services, but it is an important distinction with the truly accessible radio broadcasts.

Yet the alternative, of not charging forward with this new way of distributing the art form, seems unthinkable. Opera companies, or any institution that primarily present the art of the past, have a special mandate to focus on preservation and education. While this may reasonably take a back seat to immediate considerations for many companies, an institution as grand as the Met cannot escape this duty so easily. With the technology to make opera available to those who will never set foot in the live theater with vastly greater immediacy than radio, it would be a dereliction of duty to refuse based on miserly concerns about marginal audience attrition.

I can sympathize with fears of a dystopian future in which empty opera houses occasionally distribute a performance feed to movie theaters filled with elderly opera-goers who can't be bothered to make the trip anymore, the younger audience long since repulsed by the bland experience of secondhand live performance. But I also don't think that is very likely. The continued viability of opera is, as always, a touch-and-go situation, but the HD casts, whatever their growing pains may be, are most certainly a bright spot in that landscape.