The Two Nixons: A Natural Experiment

Recently I attended my first Live in HD broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s das Rheingold. I’m not exactly a Ringhead, but I’ve always enjoyed the Ring Cycle, in particular because of its attention to the theme of how power corrupts people. This is, of course, one of the main themes of political narrative. Das Rheingold, to be sure, focuses almost exclusively on it.

The performance blew me away. I was impressed by the powerful sound, by the sustained close-ups of the soloists, and by Robert Lepage’s imaginative production. Because das Rheingold uses very little chorus close-ups of soloists work well. And the set was very effective at presenting events occurring at different spatial levels, as well as serving as a backdrop for projected images.

I came away from it thinking about the difference between witnessing a live production and witnessing a Live in HD broadcast. Tickets for live in HD are a lot less expensive and, at least for this production of this opera, it gives you a much closer view than any seat at a live performance. I don’t expect that Live in HD would cut into the Met’s sales, and indeed there are Live in HD presentations in New York City. (This differs from the standard practice in many sporting events of blacking out broadcasts within the immediate vicinity).

I wondered, however, if the Live in HD performances of the Met wouldn’t cut into the market for regional opera companies. I posed this question to my co-authors of Digital State at the Leading Edge, and received a detailed and thoughtful reply from Perri 6 that made 3 points. First, people go to live performances to interact with other members of the audience and for the interaction between performers and audience, the latter especially if the audience is small and the performance space intimate. Second, close-up may not be the best way of enjoying a performance. Third, while the sound in Live in HD is powerful, it is mixed and blended by the production team, and is likely different from the sound in different places in the hall. Someone may buy a particular seat in the hall because they prefer the sound as heard in that location. The general consensus of my colleagues was that the experiences are sufficiently different that the Met’s Live in HD will not kill regional opera.

The next Met Live in HD performance I’m going to is John Adams’s Nixon in China on February 12. It turns out that the Canadian Opera Company is doing 8 performances of Nixon in China between February 5 and 26 and the Met an encore performance on March 12. This serendipitous quirk of scheduling has provided what economists would call a natural experiment.

Contrast the two Nixons. For Live in HD you get close-up camera work and powerful, perhaps overpowering, sound. Let’s also give the edge in quality to the Met for the same reason the Yankees usually do better in the AL East than the Blue Jays. Tickets cost $25 and you see it in borderline-grubby Cineplex cinemas usually in shopping malls.

For the Canadian Opera Company you get the in-person experience that Perri raves about. You also get a chance to dress up and see and be seen, something that has always been part of opera-going. (My compliments to the ad agency that does Cialis commercials for one that cleverly refers to the performance before the performance.) Single tickets cost between $70 and $317, though I imagine there are less expensive package deals and youth discounts.

If we were considering the impact of Live in HD broadcasts on the COC’s live performances, there are a number of things we’d like to find out. How many tickets did each sell and how many seats were empty? The Live in HD broadcasts are presented in multiple screens in the greater Toronto area, so its two performances could still amount to quite a few seats.

I could imagine a questionnaire posed to the patrons of each. Were you aware that the other way of watching the opera was available? If you were aware, why did you choose this one? Are you seeing both the COC live and the Met’s Live in HD (to pick up the real hard-core John Adams fans)? In general, do you go to both COC live and the Met’s Live in HD? If you’ve ever been to both, what do you like about each and dislike about each?

Without proprietary information about the audience (held by the COC and Cineplex) a telephone survey wouldn’t be possible. I suppose the most feasible way to implement such a survey would be to distribute it at the door. That of course, would require some funding and some research assistants – dressed down at the cinema and dressed to the nines at the opera – to hand out the questionnaires.

With less than three months, it would likely be difficult to find funding. And that’s unfortunate, because I think these are fascinating and important questions about the relationship between traditional live performance and a new technologically-enabled alternative.

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