There are few institutions as staid as the opera. So it's more than a little surprising that New York's Metropolitan Opera has emerged as one of the most media-savvy organizations, cultural or otherwise, around. Over the past 12 months, the Met--the nation's oldest opera company--has unleashed a remarkable multipronged media strategy, using everything from skillfully produced events to streaming audio to simulcasts on satellite radio and in movie theaters, all to communicate the unlikely message that opera (that's right, opera) is hip.
The effort has been spearheaded by the opera's new general manager, Peter Gelb, a former head of Sony Classical. When Gelb took the job last year, the situation was fairly dire: Revenue at the Met had been flat for six straight years, more tickets were being sold at discount to fill the house, and the average age of the audience had jumped to 65. Gelb wasted no time, doubling the marketing budget and making some daring moves, such as enlisting filmmaker Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) to stage Puccini's Madama Butterfly.
The risks paid off. Revenue jumped more than $8 million last season, and the overall audience expanded 15 percent. Advance sales for the 2007-2008 season are up 10 percent. Getting all of this done so quickly, especially at a 124-year-old institution with 900 employees and a $220 million budget, was no small feat. Senior writer Stephanie Clifford recently asked Gelb about how he pulled it off.
When you took this job, how did you plan to make this old-school institution relevant to a new crowd?
When I was being interviewed, I explained to the board that if I was to take this position, we'd all have to recognize what was wrong with the Met. There was a reason the audience was declining. And it had to do not just with the marketing of the Met, but with the core artistic essence of the Met. It needed to go through a quiet revolution that would be exciting enough to engage a new audience. I wasn't looking to suddenly turn the Met into an audience of 20-year-olds, but to draw upon the broader cultural audience of New York City.
How do you get something like that past a board that might not be so eager to change?
By explaining to them that it was necessary. And telling them I had a plan of how I was going to do it. I was very careful. I did it almost like a political platform. I laid out planks, specific initiatives that were going to be undertaken. And I kept repeating them in stump speeches. I held a press conference on the state of the Met. And luckily--and when you're producing something, luck always is a factor--my first few new productions, starting with Madama Butterfly, were successful. They not only were looked on benignly by the core audience, but also attracted a new audience.
How did you position Butterfly, a 103-year-old opera, as a must-see new event?
The Met previously did not run advertising beyond basic listings ads, so all of the advertising last season was meant to engage the public in new ways. We spent half a million dollars on a public outreach campaign in which we established the new Met with a very striking image of a performer from Butterfly. That became an iconic image and we put it everywhere: on the sides of buses, on entries into subways, on lampposts, in newspaper ads. We also did radio.
Then we staged a number of events to let people know that the Met, without dumbing itself down artistically, was going to be more accessible to a broader audience. So I said the final dress rehearsal of Butterfly would be the first rehearsal in the history of the Met that was open to the public. When we made tickets available for free, 4,000 people lined up and all the TV crews came. That in itself became an amazing event. We created a documentary about the rehearsal, and I'm bringing in filmmakers to work on intermission features for the simulcasts.
We are emerging from this very conservative, staid way of engaging the public into a much more active one. Because it's such a stark contrast, that in itself creates interest from the public and the news media.
The opening-night performance of Butterfly was simulcast in Times Square, where you set up seats on the sidewalk and people watched the show. What was the thinking behind that?
I wanted to demonstrate that the Met was a different institution going forward. That as elite and spectacular and grand as this opening night was inside, we were thinking about a larger public outside. It took a certain amount of wrangling to coordinate, but Mayor Bloomberg told me he was thrilled, because the incongruous image of opera lovers sitting watching Madama Butterfly with the Nasdaq and Reuters and Panasonic screens behind them appeared in newspapers all over the world. It was on the front page of Le Monde in Paris, it was everywhere. And that's good for the city.
You've been aggressive about getting the operas out on lots of unexpected media platforms.
I see media as key to the revival of the Met, as a resuscitation tool. There were so many years when not enough was being done that now, it's kind of like I have a golden opportunity to show what can be done. For example, we closed a deal with [the satellite radio network] Sirius (NASDAQ:SIRI) to create a 24-hour Metropolitan Opera digital channel. And we started streaming performances and audio on our website.
How did the simulcast program, which broadcast six operas into movie theaters around the world, come about?
It was a question of convincing the theaters to clear the time. I explained that we were going to be able to get opera lovers to come. And they wanted it to work because the reason all these theaters had been converted to digital projection systems is that they want to find alternative entertainment to put into their theaters. If it made no money whatsoever for the Met, it still would be well worth doing because it's a huge audience development tool. The model for me is professional baseball and football, where the more connected they are electronically, the more people want to come experience the real thing.
It's exciting to be able to buck a trend. As the classical record industry has declined, and as opera has aged and its audiences were declining, our subscription sales for next year are up 10 percent. The question is, is it a temporary blip or is it the beginning of a long-term trend for recovery?
Did your multimedia events and red carpet openings turn off any long-time subscribers?
I think they secretly wanted us to try new things. Sure, I get an occasional hate letter. But far more often, I get letters and e-mails from subscribers who tell me how excited and proud they are about what's going on. There was an assumption that the old-time audience wanted this to be some discreet art form. I don't believe that was ever true. Opera is bigger than life.