If you follow news about art/independent films, you know they're struggling. The "classics" divisions of the studios have been cutting back because of the softening economy, and it's the rare foreign-language and documentary title that grosses more than $1 million anymore.
On the other hand, the opera film is going gangbusters. The Metropolitan Opera, with its long history of live-radio broadcasts, began the trend with its "Live in HD" simulcast transmissions of productions to movie theaters for the 2006-2007 season.
Using the new high-definition digital-video technology, with upwards of a dozen cameras capturing the action, it was able to prove opera had an audience that -- while maybe not equal to American Idol -- was far more than an elitist blip on the pop-cultural charts. There were six live transmissions that season.
For the second season, which concluded in April, there were eight live transmissions at 600 theaters worldwide, including Showcase Cinemas Springdale, where attendance was so good it sometimes reached capacity, and the less-crowded Regal Cinema in Deerfield Township.
Now the Met has announced the 2008-2009 season, and it's up to 11 HD transmissions, 800 theaters and 17 countries -- plus cruise ships. It begins with a special Sept.
22 presentation of the Opening Night Gala. There will be five new productions, including one -- Massenet's "Thais" with Renee Fleming on Dec. 20 -- with former Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Music Director Jesus Lopez-Cobos conducting.
Were this not enough, two other opera companies have also started offering recorded live but delayed transmissions of their productions: San Francisco and Italy's La Scala. Rave Cinema's West Chester 18 offered both during the last season and plans to do it again despite spotty attendence. It's a way to bring new customers to the theater, says Jeremy Devine, marketing vice president.
The big question, really, is whether this explosion in access to the world's great opera companies will hurt interest and attendance in Cincinnati's own, which is starting its four-production summer season on June 11 with Puccini's Madame Butterfly.
Cincinnati Opera is the nation's second-oldest opera company after the Met, founded in 1920, with a long-deserved reputation for first-rate productions. Because it never had a summer season, Met performers often came here to work. (None of the movie-theater offerings occurs in summer so far.)
Evans Mirageas, Cincinnati Opera's artistic director, believes opera-at-the-movies can only help.
"I think it builds awareness for opera," he says. "Many of the people going are first-timers, taken by a friend to an atmosphere perhaps less intimidating than an opera house. You can eat popcorn.
"Yet there is also something to saying, 'If you like this, you need to see the real thing up front and personal.' And remember, these theaters hold 200 and under -- we seat 3,481. So it's not a threat at all. It's a wonderful plus. More opera means more opera and that's what we're here for."
Mirageas says Cincinnati Opera plans to work with movie theaters to offer information about it to those attending screenings. And Cincinnati, like most other professional opera companies, is considering future expansion into movie-theater and/or Internet delivery. But the expense of doing it right is a factor, he says.
Perhaps if the Cincinnati Opera wants to attract an international theatrical audience for its productions, it might consider staging at least an occasional production at the unique, legendary home for its first 51 years: the Cincinnati Zoo. Nobody else can offer that.
Contact Steve Rosen: firstname.lastname@example.org