In the parlance of academia, my area of research is film–specifically independent film. I’ve devoted my entire working life to trying to make and distribute films for which there was no place within the major studio system. So it is as surprising to me as it is to all of you that I’ve become somewhat of an opera impresario by virtue of distributing live and recorded broadcasts of opera into movie theaters.
Opera has never been a part of my life. My exposure to it was mainly limited to the soundtracks of movies. The films of Scorsese and Coppola teem with the sounds of opera. The Marx Brothers film “A Night at the Opera” is one of my all-time favorites, and I still smile whenever I hear an aria that I first heard while Marxian mayhem was being performed on screen. In 1981, I distributed the movie “Diva,” and experienced real opera for the first time through a friendship with Wilhelmenia Fernandez, who invited me to see her perform at the New York City Opera.
When I first began working on bringing operas to movie theaters, I was told that my lack of experience with opera would be a major handicap–that opera audiences were a very specific breed and all my experience in marketing films would not be of any value. My contention was that in the same way that I knew nothing of college basketball when I started working on “Hoop Dreams,” and nothing of the New York debutante scene when I started working on “Metropolitan,” I would do my homework. In fact, every movie is a research project. Non-studio films, which depend on niche audiences, are a particular challenge. The question is always…who is the core audience for this film given the subject matter, tone, etc.
From my experience, it is also true that one doesn’t need to love a film in order to market it. While I will not name names, I’ve done some of my best (and most successful) marketing jobs on films that I really disliked. The target audience was just not me.
Now I am several years into my opera learning curve, and I’m finding that marketing operas is really not that different from marketing films. The key differentiator is that it’s hard to convince audiences to buy tickets to something that isn’t live on the stage right in front of them. They instinctually know that anything that is taped or on film is always going to be available to them in some form. Where is the sense of urgency? A live performance provides that urgency. We recently presented the opening night of the season live from La Scala, and the conductor made an impromptu impassioned speech (in Italian) from the podium, in which he pleaded for the Italian government not to cut its financing of the arts. This became big news in the opera world, and our audience, no matter that they weren’t in Italy, was able to say that they were there.
So who are the opera audiences? They are generally older, highly educated, aspirational and typically highly fanatical. This means that they are relatively easy to reach, and once they attend, they keep coming back. They are also more hooked into old media than new media, but my sense is that this is rapidly changing. Hmmm…sounds a lot like the art film audience. And in fact, there is a lot of overlap.
Even more interesting is that, as I’ve learned more, I’ve found other parallels. I’ve been complaining for years that critics treat foreign language films differently than they treat arty, ambitious films that emanate from the United States. Dialogue that would be considered pretentious if it were spoken somehow seems profound when subtitled. Plot turns or character traits that would be dismissed as laughable in an American film are shrugged off as cultural differences in foreign films. Superficial situational comedies are so much more acceptable when the characters have British accents. There’s a kind of critical orthodoxy that is hard to break through.
In opera, there’s a simliar dynamic, only the revered institution is on the opposite side of the Atlantic. The Metropolitan Opera has the American media spellbound. It’s not that every production gets good reviews, but even when their productions are badly received, there’s a sense that everything they do is newsworthy and worth seeing. Meanwhile, the trend toward more avant garde productions coming out of the great European opera houses is frequently dismissed as “eurotrash.” It feels to me like the same kind of critical hypocracy.
Respect for the Met is no accident. Its productions have been showcased for decades on NPR and on PBS, and for all practical purposes, the Met is America’s opera house. Now the Met is in movie theaters all over the country and all over the world, and regional opera houses are living in fear that audiences will buy tickets to a local Met broadcast rather than their local opera company. The Met counters that their footprint just increases the interest in opera, and in fact, could create new audiences. The fear is perhaps more understandable when you realize that the Met is currently the largest cultural organization in the world, as measured in annual budget. To my film brain, the Met sounds a lot like a major studio.
So where all this leads is that what I’m involved with–bringing operas from the great opera houses of Europe into movie theaters across North America–is akin to what I’ve always done, which is distributing alternatives. In the same way that foreign language films, documentaries and American Independent films exist as a counterpoint to the more heavily promoted major studio movies, the productions from La Scala, the Liceu, the Royal Opera House and others that are broadcast into movie theaters are a counterpoint to the Met. The contrasting of different sensibilities and approaches makes opera more of a living, breathing art. This kind of dialectic is healthy. Other opera companies should be a part of the conversation side-by-side with the Met. This is meant as no offense to the Met. It is a great institution that produces incredible work. But as it expands its footprint around the world, there is a chance that it will dominate the conversation in an unhealthy way. The publications that cover opera need to expand their view a bit wider than Lincoln Center. Would we want to live in a world where one major studio dominated all the press coverage? I’ll leave it at that.
Oh, and our next presentation is Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci LIVE from La Scala. Check out www.operaincinema.com for a theater near you.