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ny times on hd live broadcast of arts 09 Nov 2010 09:29 #34852

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Orchestras on Big Screens: Chase Scene Needed?
By DANIEL J. WAKIN

The performing arts have long been holdouts for unfiltered, direct connection between audiences and performers in a digitized, electronic and screen-laden world.

Not anymore.

Opera houses, ballet companies, even the National Theater in London, are competing to lure audiences to live high-definition broadcasts in movie theaters, many of which are then shown again. It is the HD-ification of the arts, and it is already affecting programming decisions along with costume and set design, lighting choices and even ticket prices.

Now orchestras are jumping on the HD bandwagon, hoping that big screens can entice new fans to watch black-clad men and women playing musical instruments. The Los Angeles Philharmonic announced on Monday that it would start beaming live orchestra performances under the baton of its charismatic music director, Gustavo Dudamel, to 450 theaters in North America.

This venture joins recent forays by the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra into playing live on screen.

While the HD phenomenon has brought performances to millions of people who would not otherwise see them, it also raises major questions. How will it reshape the way shows are cast, directed and designed? Will the photogenic gain the upper hand? Will musicians start acting for the camera? Will stage direction be shaped for close-ups instead of for the view from the balcony? What effect will it have on attendance at local orchestras, theater companies and operas? In a cultural world in which even the use of a microphone creates shock waves, how will the new onslaught of electronic sound change people’s aesthetic expectations?

The best-known purveyor of cultural movie-casts is the Metropolitan Opera, which pioneered the practice five seasons ago. This season, it is transmitting 12 operas live to popcorn-eating audiences on Saturdays, reaching roughly 1,500 theaters in 46 countries. The Met said 2.4 million tickets were sold last season alone. By contrast, six transmissions in the first season went to 248 theaters in eight countries, with a total attendance of 325,000.

The Royal Opera in London and La Scala in Milan are each offering two live opera feeds this season, and the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona is providing one. Emerging Pictures, a distributor of European fare, is beaming eight live ballets from the Royal Ballet in London, the Paris Opera Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. The distributor has provided opera-casts from 11 other companies or festivals in the last several seasons.

Peter Martins, the ballet master in chief of the New York City Ballet, has mused openly about putting performances on a big screen.

The National Theater is providing six live transmissions of performances, including two from other British companies. They will reach 330 cinemas worldwide.

The producers argue that live broadcasts build support for the art form, stimulate interest and serve as inspiration to buy locally. There has been little research, and only anecdotal evidence that supports such a view. The broadcasts are not yet considered major sources of revenue; the Los Angeles Philharmonic said it hoped to break even on them.

But the trajectory is not linear. The two Royal Opera live broadcasts are down from five last year, and few of the half-dozen Italian opera houses handled by Emerging Pictures have signed on again this season, at least so far. “It’s still early days,” said Simon Magill, a spokesman for the Royal Opera.

Aesthetic issues are another matter. Already at the Met, consideration is given to how sets and costumes will look on screen. Singers at such broadcasts say they are acutely aware of close-ups. Some critics have questioned whether smaller voices will gain favor.

Cameras are now becoming an inevitable presence in halls and theaters, although technological advances have rendered them smaller and less noticeable.

At the National Theater, ticket prices are reduced for live broadcast shows because of the camera stations that are set up in the audience. Lighting and makeup are tweaked, said David Sabel, the producer of the National Theater broadcasts. But the season is programmed without regard to broadcasts, he said. “We’re not going to change what we do,” Mr. Sabel said.

High-culture performances were common on television in past decades, although in recent years they have generally been relegated to public television and arts cable channels. Operas have long been turned into movies. The market is flooded with DVDs of recorded performances. And the broadcasts are only part of the latest media strategies, which include online streaming, satellite radio broadcasts and on-demand playback.

What is new here is that the showings are live, on a big screen and part of a collective experience. They are also one-time events that are presented as something special.

“It goes back to the root of what makes live performance work, the sense of being in a space and experiencing something collectively,” Mr. Sabel said. “You’re experiencing it in the moment, and then it’s gone.”

Whatever the effect on art forms or audiences, new technology, audience appetites for what cameras can provide, and the hunger of marketers to reach new ticket-buyers are fueling a very modern way of consuming art.

The rapid conversion at movie houses from 35-millimeter-film projectors to digital has been a prerequisite. About one-third of the nation’s 39,000 movie screens have acquired digital capacity in just the last five years.

“The technology has gotten good enough at this point so what we put on the screen is a really satisfying experience for the audience, without it costing a ridiculous amount of money,” said Ira Deutchman, the managing director of Emerging Pictures, which has a network of 140 theaters.

Multiplex operators are happy to have events to show during off-hours. They can also charge more than for the typical movie ticket.

The new technology comes at a time when cultural institutions are fighting for attention. Movie broadcasts reach people who would not go to theaters for whatever reason: living room competition like on-demand movies, or the inconvenience of fighting traffic, or $250 tickets, or maybe thousands of miles of distance.

And audiences have been drawn to the behind-the-scenes interviews and features that go along with many of the transmissions, the sort of reality-television access people have grown accustomed to.

For orchestras, the concept is more of a gamble. Movie theater audiences have plenty to watch when costumed opera characters carry out lusty, murderous or comic doings. Ballet dancers gambol across the stage in displays of grace and precision, a feast for the eye.

But orchestra players tend to wear black and just sit there (although Mr. Dudamel is a kinetic, hair-flopping presence). They also tend to play it safe when they know a film is being made that would preserve every error. And there is nothing to make up for substandard movie theater sound systems during a symphonic concert.

Some orchestras believe that the gamble is worth taking. The Berlin Philharmonic showed its Aug. 27 opening-night concert live in 70 theaters, mostly in Europe. On Sept. 18, the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland transmitted its closing concert, by the Vienna Philharmonic led by Mr. Dudamel, to 50 European theaters. The Philadelphia Orchestra is transmitting nine concerts this season to about 30 movie theaters and 50 retirement homes and community centers in the United States, said Mark Rupp, the president of its distributor, SpectiCast.

Deborah Borda, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s president and chief executive, argues that the medium will work for orchestras, or at least her own.

“We have some unique assets: Gustavo Dudamel, the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall, a wonderful orchestra and a vision about programming,” Ms. Borda said. “You put that together, and we felt it was the right time.”

Ms. Borda said the Philharmonic would experiment with three concerts this season: a Jan. 9 program of works by John Adams, Leonard Bernstein and Beethoven; a March 13 Tchaikovsky program; and a June 5 program of Brahms: the Symphony No. 4 and the Double Concerto with the Capuçon brothers — the violinist Renaud and the cellist Gautier — as soloists. Suggested ticket prices will be around $20.

“The goal is not just to promote the Los Angeles Philharmonic but to strengthen the audience for classical music around the country,” Ms. Borda said. “The audience for this, if it’s working in the way we think it can, will grow.”
Michael Hurley
Impresario
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