Every now and then, I like to daydream about a question that’s essentially a variation on the more universal “What if I won the lottery?”: What if I had a foundation? Where might I direct the plentiful resources of my hypothetical endowment? Near the top of my fantastical list of grant programs is this wish: to support the creation and distribution of high-quality films of contemporary operas.
Making more live films of new and recent operas, and making those films readily available to the public, might be much more important to the future of opera than is currently appreciated. It could create new audiences for live opera, give long-term life to contemporary works, and enable young and emerging composers, librettists, and performers to become more aware of the state of the art. Leveraging streaming video on demand, whether through subscription, pay-per-rent, or ad-based platforms (or some combination thereof), is one strategy that could be particularly effective at removing some major barriers to experiencing new operas, both for new audiences and opera devotees who lack access to live performances.
Sadly, I do not have my very own foundation for the arts. Furthermore, I don’t claim to have any special solutions to the logistical, financial, and legal complexities of producing, licensing, and distributing films of operas. Even so, I believe such hurdles will need to be tackled and overcome—for the love of opera.
Barriers to Access
As a young composer starting out in opera—I’m currently in America Opera Projects’ wonderful Composers & the Voice fellowship program—attempting to become reasonably knowledgeable about prominent work being done in the field has led me to many impasses. Surely I’m not unusual in lacking the resources to travel around the country (or the world) to see notable productions, or even to buy tickets to more than a handful of the productions occurring in New York City, where I’m fortunate to live. As such, I’m frequently frustrated by the lack of films available of stage productions of new and recent works.
I cite my personal circumstances only to illustrate a universal problem. For anyone out there who does not happen to live near an opera company that frequently stages quality productions of new operas, or does not have the resources to attend more than a couple performances each season and/or take the risk of attending a performance they don’t already know much about (e.g. seeing a favorite performer or favorite work), the barriers to experiencing the best of contemporary opera are, at present, much too high for too many people—be they opera novices or opera nerds.
The Value of Video on Demand
The problem I’m contemplating is not solely a matter of documenting the work on video (important in its own right) and making it commercially available in some form (such as on DVD or via movie theater broadcasts), but also making video highly accessible. This is true for operas in general, but especially true for contemporary operas: First, because the future development of opera depends on the circulation of new work. Second, because any new opera lacks the widespread reputation of canonical repertoire and its future may be dependent on the impression made with its first production(s). A well-produced, well-distributed film of a new opera could make a big difference to the life of that work.
According to Nielsen’s most recent Total Audience Report, 45% of U.S. households subscribe to streaming video on-demand services. Consumption of video on PC, smartphone, and tablet is increasing steadily: 2015 showed a 19% growth over 2014. Teens and younger adults appear to be the biggest consumers of digital video: to cite just one statistic, 18- to 24-year olds spent 72% more time per month watching video on a PC than 50- to 64-year olds. Trends in sales also indicate the overall shift in the home entertainment landscape towards digital and streaming: The Digital Entertainment Group’s report for 2014 stated that, while DVD and Blu-ray Disc sales continued to be the primary revenue stream, income from discs (both sales and rentals) has gone down markedly as digital movie sales and subscription streaming are continuing to experience huge growth (showing an increase of 30% and 25.8%, respectively, between 2013 and 2014).
Recordings cannot and should not replace live performances, but that’s true no matter what medium of video is being discussed (online streaming, DVD, live simulcast, etc.). Given the on-demand convenience and wide availability of mass quantities of streaming video of all kinds via subscription and ad-based services, opera—like many other performing arts—is at a major disadvantage in vying for the attention of even very enlightened media consumers if it does not begin to leverage current and expanding forms of distribution more extensively.
In 2012, the Metropolitan Opera launched Met Opera on Demand, a subscription streaming service for PC and mobile, with a subsequent release supporting streaming on home TV via Samsung Smart TV or Roku (the most compelling platform for this service, in my opinion, assuming your TV has a bigger screen and better speakers than your PC or mobile device). High-quality films of live operas, including and predating live simulcasts from the Met, have never been more widely accessible. Note that $14.99/month for unlimited access is an exceptionally high price tag compared to other streaming video services (especially considering that the Met also offers a comparatively small video library: while boasting 550 full-length performances, at last count that list encompassed videos of 108 unique operas or opera-related programs, not including multiple productions of the same opera or audio-only recordings). However, this is very affordable when compared to the cost of opera tickets or purchasing DVDs.
Met Opera on Demand is an exciting model, prime for future development. Unfortunately, the last time I checked the selection of operas by living composers available through the Met Opera’s library, they were disappointingly few: The First Emperor by Tan Dun, Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China by John Adams, The Tempest by Thomas Adès, and The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano. (Of course, there are only so many contemporary operas being produced or filmed at the Met that would be possible to include. But that’s a subject for an entirely different column!) Notably, Nico Muhly’s recent Two Boys is absent from this list.
Aside from Met Opera on Demand and the occasional full-length video on YouTube (usually of dubious legitimacy), there are several sources for streaming opera videos on demand. However, they feature smaller libraries—typically a rotating selection, in coordination with the current or recent season—and one or two contemporary works at most. Such libraries include Teatro Real, Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall (mostly un-staged, concert performances), Stream Opera, Viener Staatsoper, The Opera Platform, and PBS’s Great Performances.
Imagine the possible impact of a subscription streaming service that included a substantial library of contemporary operas—ideally, aggregated across multiple opera companies to offer quantity and variety. How might such a service expand audiences for new opera? Generate interest in staging new productions of existing works? Further the artistic development of this field, in which even composers and librettists only rarely have opportunities to see the master works of our age?
Certainly, there are some more fundamental, underlying problems with the current situation—it’s challenging even to find a prominent place for new works on our opera stages and in our culture, never mind our streaming video websites—and yet, films are not being made (or being publicly distributed) of even the full range of new operas that are actively being commissioned, developed, and produced by professional opera companies across the country. As I learn more about current operas, I find it increasingly disappointing to have no opportunities to see films of many operas written by prominent American composers. Where are the DVDs or streaming videos of Missy Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar? Christopher Theofanidis’s Heart of a Soldier or The Refuge? Ricky Ian Gordon’s many operas?
By contrast, Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick was filmed for PBS’s Great Performances and is currently available via streaming video on the web and connected TVs. From the consumer’s perspective, this is a dream come true: it’s available on demand, in your home, for free. Assuming you have an internet-connected device, the barrier to entry is no greater than the amount of time it takes to actually watch the opera. Kevin Puts’s Silent Night was also broadcast on Great Performances and was previously available on demand for a temporary period. This film appears to no longer be available from any source, free or paid.
How is it that an opera can win the Pulitzer Prize, receive a production by one of the country’s largest opera companies (Minnesota Opera), and be filmed and broadcast on public media—a triumph by any measure—and yet the public cannot presently access this film through any medium? There are likely complex legal or economic reasons behind this, but the outcome is a missed opportunity for audiences and opera-makers alike.