The Met Opera Tries to Find Paying Customers in a Pandemic

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After the coronavirus pandemic forced concert halls and opera houses to close this spring, online performances proliferated. The Metropolitan Opera began streaming nightly operas from its extensive video archive, and in April it presented an At-Home Gala, broadcast over smartphones from the homes of singers around the world.

The classical music and opera offerings this spring and summer have mostly been free — and tremendously gratifying. But as cancellations continue into the fall, and beyond, organizations have worried that listeners will start taking free performances for granted.

So the Met is testing whether audiences will pay for digital content with a series of recitals by some of its biggest stars; the first, on Saturday, featured the tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Tickets are $20, roughly the price of the Met’s Live in HD movie-theater transmissions.

The endeavor might bring in some much-needed revenue for a company that is losing up to $100 million in sales during its theater’s closure, which will last at least until the end of the year. But perhaps even more important, the recitals are intended to stimulate donations. “Fund-raising ebbs and flows according to activities and events,” Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, said in a recent interview with The New York Times.

The Met’s At-Home Gala used charmingly makeshift technology. Mr. Kaufmann’s concert, by comparison, offered professional camera work, including many — maybe too many — dramatic close-ups, and high-quality sound. (At least, after a glitch when the audio briefly dropped out just as Mr. Kaufmann began singing the aria “Recondita armonia” from Puccini’s “Tosca.”)

The program, with the pianist Helmut Deutsch, consisted of 11 arias and one Italian song performed (without a live audience) in the ornate 18th-century library of Polling Abbey near Munich, where Mr. Kaufmann lives. With a couple of exceptions, this was a greatest-hits collection of numbers from “Tosca,” “Turandot,” “Roméo et Juliette,” “La Gioconda” and more. Still, Mr. Kaufmann has been perhaps the Met’s most elusive star, and it was exciting to hear him again, even over a livestream.

The concert had a feeling of unusual intimacy, like a song recital; Mr. Kaufmann and Mr. Deutsch, an elegant pianist, have been frequent partners in recordings and performances of lieder. The familiar arias felt like they had been considered anew, and Mr. Kaufmann’s singing was splendid — his voice vibrant with dusky colors and warmth, his phrasing impassioned.

When called for, he drew on smoldering power, as in his heroic account of an aria from Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier.” Yet I’ve seldom heard the “Flower Song” from Bizet’s “Carmen” sung with such tenderness and vulnerability. Mr. Kaufmann did the climactic phrase with a softness rare among tenors, following the pianissimo dynamic Bizet wrote in the score. The high B-flat was beautifully subdued.

To give Mr. Kaufmann some breaks on Saturday, excerpts from his Met Live in HD broadcasts were shown, including scenes from Wagner’s “Die Walküre,” Massenet’s “Werther” and Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West.” There was even footage of Mr. Kaufmann performing “Vesti la giubba” from “Pagliacci” at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 2015.

If all this, and the photo montages of Mr. Kaufmann in action at the Met, pushed the promotional trappings a little too obviously, no matter. Revisiting his triumphs was a reminder of what opera fans are missing right now. The 12-concert recital series, hosted by Christine Goerke, will also include performances from various locations by Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Joyce DiDonato, Bryn Terfel, Angel Blue, Lise Davidsen and others.

One delicate issue came up during Mr. Gelb’s recent Times interview: While the stars participating in the series are being paid, the Met’s orchestra and chorus, among other employees, remain furloughed. But Mr. Gelb said the recitals, and other initiatives, are necessary to keep the company going.

“If there’s no Met to come back to,” he said, “the jobs of our furloughed artists will be lost.”

Mr. Kaufmann implicitly acknowledged this at the end of the concert, after a valiant performance of “Nessun dorma.” He and Mr. Deutsch, following hygiene protocols, bumped elbows instead of shaking hands. Then Mr. Kaufmann spoke of what a “pleasure and privilege” it was to be the first singer in the recital series. Not all musicians have that privilege right now, he added. So he announced that he was donating $5,000 to the Met, with the hope that its artists and audiences will be together again soon.



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