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Beata i Michał Olszewscy
opera.info.pl - 11/05/2015

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"I like my job" - interview with Dominique Meyer - part one

Polish version Flaga polska


Dominique Meyer, the director of the Vienna State Opera talks to Beata and Michal Olszewscy about „Live at home” programme, the unique role of the Vienna State Opera,  about the steps that have been taken to ensure a high level of each performance and about the famous Vienna Philharmonic. The interview took place on 8th of September, in Vienna.

Dominique Meyer photo (c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Poehn published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of the Wiener Staatsoper
Click to magnify

We would like to start our conversation with the question about “Live at home” programme, which is a very interesting and unique proposition for opera lovers worldwide. This season we will have the opportunity to see more than forty live transmissions at home, mainly operas, but also ballets and concerts, featuring great singers, conductors and musicians. This concept is very innovative as the transmissions are done in superb quality and it has been appreciated not only by the opera audience, but also by the International Broadcasting Convention that has just awarded the Vienna State Opera a special prize for this cycle. Could you tell us about how long it took to get to the realisation stage from the moment of such concept’s creation, about the major obstacles that you have had to overcome and about the lessons you have learned from the last year’s experience?

It was really a very complicated process. That was one of my first ideas when I was named Director of the Vienna State Opera in 2007, but it was too early to begin such a project because the technology was not ready at that time. I did not want to transform the theatre auditorium into a TV studio, either. As an opera lover, when I visit a performance and see big cameras, I’m disturbed. Moreover, at that time you would have had to modify the lighting system, too, which could be very unpleasant, so I decided not to do that. Another thing was that the cost of such project would have been huge at that time, and the third problem was that I was not able to find anybody technically skilful enough to do it. I was in contact with scientists from universities, movie directors and specialists working in TV studios, but I wanted to find somebody, who knows a lot about operas and who is a technical freak. That should be someone open-minded and interested in new technical and software solutions.

We guess opera houses were still dependent on media and recording companies at that time?

Considering the situation of opera arts I realized that I may belong to the last generation that collects “slices of plastic” and that this habit is almost finished. Why were the labels so strong? Because they could print these “slices of plastics”, they were able to store them, then advertise, distribute and sell them. If you consider the cost of CD and DVD production, you know that “artists’ costs” are less than ten per cent of the final price. Nowadays, when situation in the recording industry has changed and ninety per cent of money is not in the game anymore, the label companies are not able to hire Vienna Philharmonic, to ensure the conductors' co-operation  and to make studio recordings. This sort of business does not work on the market anymore. So what could such companies do? They may offer live recordings, which means that the music and theatre producers are in the centre of the game. The second factor that should be taken into consideration is the fact that it is more and more difficult to get broadcast from the main, national television companies. I remember that when I was young, there was only public television available. As long as we had two or three channels it was easy to put Beethoven at eight o’clock in the evening. Now in the cable TV, you have hundreds of channels and the programme about Beethoven is “lost” somewhere in a massive main stream offer consisting of sport, rock and roll and other stuff. Today there is much less space for classical music, education and culture. When you put all these problems together and consider the position of the Vienna Opera House which provides three hundred performances a year at very high level every night, which are produced here by a thousand of employees, why shouldn’t we be able to have a small group of people delivering a new solution for opera lovers? That would mean independence for us from broadcasters, when we want to offer the transmission.

Wiener Staatsoper photo (c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Poehn published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of the Wiener Staatsoper
Click to magnify

Does it mean that the so-called “transmission” team is on board here and works on a regular basis for the Vienna State Opera?

Yes. I decided to start the whole project fifteen months ago, when I finally found Christopher Widauer, who is the right person to do it. Because of that, in a split of a second, the situation changed in a positive way. In the meantime, also the technology has improved very much and now we have nine small and unobtrusive cameras in the theatre auditorium, installed in such a way, that they are almost invisible to the audience as well as the artists. Moreover, it turned out not to be very challenging to find sponsors for financing this project.

Many opera houses had decided to show their own performances via the Internet before you launched your project.

That is correct, but we did not want to follow this pattern. We wished to have exceptionally high technical level of such transmissions and we wanted to bring some new and unique benefits for our customers into the market. When you do an opera broadcast you have to keep in mind that this is a very specific area. For example, if I do a transmission with the ORF television channel, I know that my performance will be available only in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. If I do it with Arte channel, I’m aware that fewer people may watch it but in a bigger number of countries.  Anyway, in each case it is a very limited and closed  auditorium. Our idea was different, as we wanted to reach opera lovers everywhere in the world. We knew very well that we have o lot of opera fans in Japan or South America for example, who are very interested in what is going on here in Vienna.

There are also many opera lovers living in villages in the mountains as well as in small towns, where even satellite TV signal is sometimes hard to receive…

…exactly… and that is why we wanted to use the Internet instead, and develop the time shifting system, which is user-friendly and does not force people all over the world to wake up at three o’clock in the morning to watch an interesting performance.

You provide in your broadcasting a unique feature, offering a viewer the possibility to choose between two different pictures. Always, when we attend for example “MET Live in HD” we have only one option available, which is to watch what is mixed for us by the producer of the show. The whole action on the stage is presented in a way more similar to a movie with a series of close-ups delivering various pictures from different places of the stage and the orchestra pit. Transmissions delivered by you are different. Why?

As an opera lover, when I watch TV or cinema transmissions, I am deeply frustrated because, as you said, there is always someone who acts as a movie director and decides what I have to see. If I know that something important and interesting is going on the left side of the stage, I do not want to be forced to watch the right side of it. Many people share this opinion, but at the same time I do not want to compel the rest of them to accept my point of view, as certainly there are still some people, who appreciate those close-ups. That is why I proposed to develop the system in which a viewer has both options – one fixed picture and one changeable with cuts. Our decision to strive into this direction was correct, because soon a new technology came into the market. This is the UHD or 4k system, which is four times more precise than normal High Definition. Of course, our asset is that we have a strong partnership with Samsung, which is a very advanced company in developing new cutting edge technology and world market leader. Using UHD, we may deliver much better picture and also you, as our spectators, may sit much closer to the screen without having any problems with your eyes. The picture is so precise and sharp that even when you choose the total view channel you see everything in better details than when sitting in the third row of the real auditorium. It is very interesting that when this UHD technology was available and installed in the modern TV sets, there was no content to be shown by them. So it was a splendid occasion for us to work with Samsung to develop together first ever content using fully UHD technology. This process was extremely complicated because you could easily make pictures, but the quantity of data you had to send was so huge that we were not able to put the whole lot into the typical internet “pipe”. We had to work with the best specialists in the world to find the proper and effective software applications to overcome this obstacle. After long and hard work we succeeded and obtained the final solution in May this year. We were awarded for this technological breakthrough by the International Broadcasting Convention, as we were the first in the history, who successfully made such publicly and worldwide accessible UHD transmission available.

Dominique Meyer photo (c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Poehn published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of the Wiener Staatsoper
Click to magnify

Was this technological achievement possible due to sort of special compression applied to your transmission?

Yes, and it is worth emphasizing that this task was very challenging as there was no standardized technical setup for testing. The only option was to experiment with existing cameras and a combination of different optics, customizing encoders and software, and testing, with the few UHD devices available all over the world at that time. That process was extremely complicated. Finally, we found the solution for efficient compression of all necessary data to a bitrate that many households can receive, without deteriorating the quality of the pictures. Of course, it was mutually profitable work for us and also for Samsung, because millions of TV sets with UHD technology had already been sold on the market without the existing content suitable for them.

It might have been a bit annoying for customers, who had bought technologically advanced TV sets and were not able to enjoy all the benefits coming from UHD standard.

Exactly, that was a real problem and it was a fantastic adventure for us to join such great work in progress and be a part of it. We will start the first worldwide regular UHD Live streaming programme in October, offering 10 UHD broadcasts through our Samsung SmartTV App during this season – and we still are the only live content available. Now, we are all thinking about the next technological step, which will be allowing our viewers to do all those close-ups by themselves.

Do you mean that we will soon be able to make personal picture choices, sitting comfortably on our sofas at home?

That is correct. The only thing you will need is one of those TV sets equipped with UHD technology. Moreover, you will be able to obtain the same visual effects on the television screen as when working with your tablets, but without even touching the screen. It will work like in all these TV tennis games delivered by Wii console, where every action on the screen is caused by your movements or gestures.

And what about subtitles? From the beginning you have decided to use a separate device, on which subtitles are delivered. It is an unusual solution on the market, a bit complicated for people without perfect technology skills. Some older people may complain that it is too difficult to follow subtitles on the ipad for instance, while the opera performance is shown simultaneously on the TV screen.

I’m aware of this problem and I think it will take time for the audience to get used to this solution. Anyway, for me this feature is a great advantage because, if you have missed something you can go backwards, which is not possible in traditional approach, when the subtitles are displayed on the same screen with the picture from the stage. But we have an idea to make subtitles available for simultaneous reading within the picture, on computers. We are working on this subject.

You have also developed something called “The score”.

Yes. During broadcasting the user is able to obtain the score. In the Vienna State Opera we have many specific assets - one of them is great archives. We are, for instance, in possession of the scores with personal notes of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. If we do now an exhibition about Gustav Mahler, where we present his score in a traditional way, you will be able to see only two pages of it, covered by thick glass. Because of that, we proposed a much more advanced and beneficial solution. We started to test it last December with two broadcasts: “Fidelio” and “Tristan and Isolde,” during which the scores were available for the viewers and pages were turned automatically.  It was an interesting experience also for me, as I was in Japan at that time, presenting this project. There was a big screen and I was not sure at all if it would work.

It must have been a very nervous moment…

Oh yes, it was an extremely tense moment for us - watching the screen and waiting for what would happen – with 50 Japanese journalists watching. However, everything went perfectly well and we had the feeling of huge relief and satisfaction.

We have noticed that you were very cautious with this project in terms of advertising. There was nothing like a big “marketing wow”.

Yes, we began our project rather slowly. I did not want to advertise it too much as the whole concept was very risky. From the very beginning I was aware that people needed time to get used to this system, which might seem a bit complicated. Therefore, I did not want to advertise it heavily because there was still so much work to be done behind the screen. I may compare it to leading an airline company, where you need time to get the legal rights to use the best routes in the sky for your planes. The same holds for the Internet for sending your data. Moreover, I was convinced from the very beginning that we would face many technical problems, so I preferred to avoid big advertising. Now, we are able to start the second stage of implementing our project, in which we plan to broadcast more than forty five titles this season. Anyway, this is a new programme and we have to keep in mind all the time that first of all we must sell tickets here. Our priority is to deliver very good opera performances to people living in Vienna and visitors coming here from all over the world. Streaming development is important but still sort of an additional activity for us.

Wiener Staatsoper photo (c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Poehn published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of the Wiener Staatsoper
Click to magnify

Aren’t you afraid that if you really succeed in broadcasting your performances, it may have a negative impact on sales of your tickets? We mean the problems similar to those experienced by the Metropolitan Opera in New York for instance, where a significant drop in ticket sales has been noticed, because of the success of the “MET Live in HD” transmissions. It is believed that many opera lovers in New York City prefer to go to the cinema nearby instead of going to the real theatre. Is there any similar commercial risk for the Vienna State Opera?

Maybe I’m wrong but I do not see any danger like that for us. We have already had big experience with such activities, as every season, during selected months, we broadcast our performances for free on a big screen outside the House for people gathering in the street in front of the Opera. We are always sold out regardless of whether we have a transmission or not. I remember, when we had “Anna Bolena” with Anna Netrebko and Elīna Garanča, we had five hundred thousand people watching the programme on TV only in Austria and at the same time the House was completely sold out. So I don’t believe that there is any risk for us in making broadcasts on the Internet. At the MET, the problem is completely different. As you know, the Metropolitan Opera is essential in terms of world cultural significance, but is not as important for the city itself as the Opera House here for Vienna. The opera fans here in Vienna watch broadcasts and still want to go to the real theatre. In New York, the problem is completely different as it is a huge city. For New Yorkers, it is often very hard to visit the MET. Because of enormous traffic they have to spend two hours at the wheel to get there and after the show they need to sacrifice another couple of hours to drive back home. So, for instance, the fact that the weather is worse, may be the reason why for many people it is much easier to go to the cinema across the street, then to struggle with traffic and visit the MET personally. But here in Vienna, the State Opera is the real heart of the city and the centre of its cultural life, so I’m not afraid that the success of our broadcast system may affect the sales of tickets.

Apart from the programme “Live at home”, the Vienna State Opera is doing a lot in terms of promoting opera arts to people. As you said, there is the ”Opera outdoor” programme, which is free and available through April, June, May and also September…

…it’s worth mentioning, that we have just found more sponsors and the screen outside of the Opera House will be working longer.

That’s great news. But the “Opera outdoor” is not the only thing. If we look at the places inside the theatre, almost 25 per cent of them are standing places at very affordable prices. This is a kind of an amazing gift from the Opera House if we keep in mind that many tickets here cost more than 200 euros.

In fact, this is a long-term policy here. We may call it a tradition of the House and, of course, I want and have to respect that. When I came here I was deeply impressed by the role played by classical music in Vienna and in Austrian cultural life. Of course, I knew perfectly how important the opera and classical music are in this society, but I did not expect this might be so deep and real. That is why this tickets policy is an important tradition of the Vienna State Opera, also because we have a very mixed society here, comprising also young and older people. Last June I met a man who had visited the State Opera almost three times a week since 1955, when the house was reopened after the war. It was his 98th birthday on that day, and he was occupying the place in the first row of the standing area waiting to see   “Götterdämmerung”…

...it is incredible…

…yes, it was very moving. That day, I gave him my ticket for this performance. But, of course, we have here also many students and people with low income, for whom these standing tickets are very important. I respected that from the very beginning and thought about finding the modern version of this tradition. The answer is twofold. The first point is this transmission system that provides opera in a very democratic way and in perfect quality to everybody in the world. The second point is the work we could do with schools, as we have developed a big programme designed for children here. During special transmissions to schools, kids are able to see an opera production at various stages, from the time of rehearsals to the final performance. During these broadcasts artists speak directly to children explaining to them how all things are organized in opera theatres. At the end, the kids can see the stream. Moreover, at the Vienna State Opera we do fifty performances of children operas as well as workshops for them, and organize “open doors” days for visiting our Opera House.

Dominique Meyer photo (c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Poehn published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of the Wiener Staatsoper
Click to magnify

Does it mean that in Vienna it is much easier to solve the financial problems, typical for opera houses elsewhere in the world? As we all know some opera houses have recently gone bankrupt and many more have significant problems with covering their operating costs. How are things going at the Vienna State Opera?

There is also a difficult situation here at the Vienna State Opera, as the Austrian state is not in a very comfortable position regarding the money necessary to support cultural institutions. This is not a very big country, so automatically, the budget is relatively smaller than in other parts of the world. It is not easy for the government to meet the needs of all cultural institutions in Austria. For instance, there have been no changes in the subvention level for the Vienna State Opera since 1999. Of course, for many years we had good financial reserves, but during the last four seasons we had to put a lot of effort into increasing the ticket sales and, as a matter of fact, we have succeeded. When I came here, the sales income was about 29 million euros and last year we reached over 33 million euros. We may call it a big step in the right direction, but of course, this is not enough, so we try to do as much as possible to earn additional money.

What about private sponsoring?

It is not easy here, because Vienna is not a big city in comparison with Paris, London or New York, with many headquarters of big companies, and there is no long tradition of sponsoring. But of course, we are trying to do our best in this matter. I think we have a great opera programme and we are among the three top opera houses in the world, but our budget is only about one third of the Metropolitan Opera’s in New York. So it is not an easy situation for us, but the Austrian government is aware of it and I strongly believe we will find a good solution for the coming seasons together. The strong asset of the Austrian national economy is the tourist industry in the wintertime and culture through the whole year. The beauty of Vienna is fantastic - this is a great historic city, not destroyed during the war, very clean and safe, with uniquely strong bonds with culture. Can you imagine that in this city, which has a population of 1.8 million people, and which is not very big internationally, ten thousand tickets are sold every day for classical music events? It’s incredible. Moreover, you have many wonderful museums, great galleries and the overwhelming feeling that the whole city has been growing vigorously since the Second World War. Considering the Vienna State Opera, we sell almost six hundred thousand tickets every year. A third of it goes to tourists.  I think it’s a very good balance, when almost seventy per cent of the opera audience here is composed of Vienna inhabitants and Austrian fellow citizens. It means that we still have a very strong link with the population. And there is one more important point - that by selling two hundred thousand tickets to guests from abroad we generate two hundred thousand hotel nights and an enormous amount of spending in town, which can’t be ignored. So it shows how crucial the role of the Vienna State Opera is in the local economy.

The second part of this interview is available here - "I like my job" - interview with Dominique Meyer - part two 

Authors: Beata and Michal Olszewscy

Proofreading: Meg

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