New York's Metropolitan Opera aims to reach a wider audience as it steps up live broadcasts to cinemas around the world during an upcoming season that features six new productions.
Announcing its 2015-16 season on Wednesday, the Met promised popular classics and performances by some of opera's most prominent singers including Nina Stemme, Jonas Kaufmann, Anna Netrebko, Kristine Opolais and Joyce DiDonato.
Next year will mark one decade since the Met launched live broadcasts into cinemas, an idea that initially struck some purists as offbeat but which the opera house says now pulls in a global audience of 250,000 per performance.
Met general manager Peter Gelb, who has championed the initiative known as "The Met: Live in HD," said that the broadcasts have helped attract a younger audience by showing the immediacy of opera.
"Of all the performing arts, opera comes the closest to a kind of gladiatorial contest," Gelb told AFP.
Along with rejuvenating the aging crowds at the Met, Gelb said that the broadcasts have increased the Met's profile and persuaded talent to perform in New York rather than at the Met's primary rivals in Europe.
Outside the United States, the top audience for "The Met: Live in HD" is in Germany and Austria, where opera is ingrained in cultural life.
The Met said it would expand transmissions in the 2015-16 season to a total of more than 2,000 movie theaters in 70 countries, up from just 98 cinemas during the first broadcast in 2006.
Gelb identified China and Russia as countries for expansion.
China has seen a surge in interest in Western classical music, although mostly instrumental rather than opera, while Russia has a longstanding opera tradition whose stars have been increasingly visible globally.
"In spite of all the political problems in the world today between Russia and the West, in terms of opera, it's closer than it ever was," Gelb said.
The cultural ties have not been without controversy, with a protester recently disrupting a curtain call for Tchaikovsky's "Iolanta" to protest the support of stars, including Netrebko, for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Gelb said that the broadcasts generated $17-19 million per season for the Met, which has long struggled to stabilize its finances and relies on donations for more than half of its budget.
"For an organization that has a $300 million annual budget, that's not going to solve our problems, but it's certainly better than not having it," he said.
- Six new productions -
For the first time in nearly a century, the Met will stage Georges Bizet's early opera "Les Pecheurs de Perles" ("The Pearl Fishers"), a tale of a priestess wooed by friends-turned-rivals in ancient Sri Lanka.
The last Met production in 1916 starred the legendary tenor Enrico Caruso. The new production will be directed by Penny Woolcock, who has a diverse background in theater and film.
Other season highlights include a new production by South African artist William Kentridge of Alban Berg's "Lulu," a once controversial opera of a young woman's sexual spell.
German soprano Marlis Petersen, who is known for portraying "Lulu," will perform the role in New York.
Swedish dramatic soprano Stemme, who mostly sings in Europe, will come to New York for one of opera's best-loved but highly challenging title roles in select Met performances of Puccini's "Turandot." She will also star in the title role of "Elektra."
The season will open on October 17 with a new production of Verdi's "Otello." Gelb described Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, who will star in the production, as one of the world's few singers with the vocal power to play the title role in a large opera house.
Unlike many previous years, the 2015-16 season will feature no contemporary operas. Gelb described the absence as an accident of the calendar and said that modern productions were in the works.
The last season included "The Death of Klinghoffer," John Adams' opera on the killing of a disabled American Jewish hostage by Palestinian hijackers of a cruise ship.
The production triggered rare off-stage drama at the Met, with heckling by pro-Israel demonstrators.