Yesterday, the Metropolitan Opera launched a new version of its on-demand streaming service. Straightforwardly named Met Opera on Demand, it replaces the company's old Met Player streaming service, which according to the Met has had (only) about 20,000 users since it launched three years ago and now has roughly 4,500 subscribers. The biggest news about Met Opera on Demand is that it's available on the go as an iPad app.
I spent some time yesterday and this morning poking around the iPad version of the service as well as trying it out via the Met's standard website. Here are 10 first impressions — some good, some bad — and observations about the service itself and what it represents for the Met.
1) There's the essential and undeniable 21st-century coolness of being able to call up full operas on a whim. Crave Leontyne Price's legendary 1985 farewell performance of Aida? No prob. Have a sudden hankering for John Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles from 20 years ago? Easy-peasy. In the mood for the killer Nozze di Figaro cast with Renee Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli and Bryn Terfel? They're all yours — and you can take them anywhere.
2) It ain't cheap. Sure, the iPad app's free — but accessing the content costs a minimum of $14.99 per month or $149 per year. (That works out to $12.42 a month; either way, it's a tad cheaper than going to the movie theater simulcasts once a month, even without the popcorn.) Though they've created some incentive introductory pricing to entice fans into giving the new service a spin, there's no discount for Met season subscribers, nor is there any special pricing for schools or libraries.
3) There are 104 videos and 262 audio-only performances available. The earliest audio comes from two 1936 live broadcasts: one of Wagner's Gotterdammerung starring Lauritz Melchior, and the other of Saint-Saens' Samson et Delila with Ezio Pinza.
4) Sonically, experiencing opera on the iPad is only as good as ... the iPad. I tried out what I suspect will be a typical user's iPad setup — just the iPad's built-in speaker alternating with the Apple-made earbuds — and the sound is just awful. It's tinny, cold and about a half-inch deep. Who knows what brass lurk deep in the Rhine of Das Rheingold? Not I.
5) The iPad app isn't all that beautifully presented, in terms of graphic appeal, but the content is very easily navigable. Click on a picture of one of the videos, and you're taken to the video, subtitle selections, an option to share the link via Facebook and Twitter, a small description of the production and a truncated cast list — but there's also a link to a plot synopsis and a scene-by-scene navigation list (in which certain scenes are marked as "featured," in case you want to skim the performance.)
6) Speaking of featured content: When you fire up the iPad app, the first page you come to highlights five "featured video performances" — and the ones selected are very telling about general manager Peter Gelb's priorities at the Met. All five operas selected for launch-time highlighting are HD offerings from the past three seasons. Of the 104 videos initially available, 44 come from the "Live in HD" initiative. The plan is that new HD titles will be added to the on-demand service two to three months after they premiere in the ultra-popular movie theater simulcasts. (Not everything's there, however: though I was thrilled to see that both John Adams' Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic made the initial cut, I'm still waiting with bated breath for Philip Glass' Satyagraha.)
6A) Similarly: Three of the five images for the featured videos at launch time are closeups of Anna Netrebko as Anna Bolena, Norina in Donizetti's Don Pasquale and Lucia di Lammermoor. And the screenshot of the iPad app in action provided by the Met's press office features ... Anna Netrebko.
I suppose this is a welcome vision if you're a diehard Trebs fan. Otherwise, not so much. And it slights the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Placido Domingo and Beverly Sills, all of whom are well represented in the Met video catalog.
7) Theoretically, all the videos contain English subtitles, which is lovely. However, when I dipped into the 1990 video of Das Rheingold (the classic Otto Schenk production) on the iPad, the subtitles seemed to be missing, despite my attempts to solve the problem in pretty crude, low-tech ways. That's surely just a bug or some kind of streaming hiccup, but it's still a drag — especially considering that part of the Met's DNA is making opera accessible, including its groundbreaking use of back-of-the-chair subtitling. (Update: As of the following day, the subtitles were working fine).
8) You can't use the new mobile app on an iPhone or on Apple TV, nor on any non-iPad tablet device. That may be the way of the world right now — after all, NPR Music's own amazing and essential (ahem) mobile app is available only for the iPad and iPhone. A Met spokesperson tells me that they are planning on expanding to other platforms at a later point, but aren't ready to give any details.
9) There are little quirks multi-taskers should know about. For example, if you pop out of the Met app to access something else, you can't resume playback at the same spot — instead, you'll be directed back to the beginning of the opera though you can scroll forward and back or navigate your way through scenes. Moreover, the only way that performances are listed are by opera title; there's not even a composer list. (You can use "search," however, to find operas by composer or by headlining cast member.)
10) When you go to Apple's iPad app store and type "opera" into the app store search bar, Met Opera on Demand is the very first actual opera-related app that pops up in the store's first twelve listings by relevance. (Number five is the app the Met commissioned to announce its 2011-12 season — and those two Met apps are it, as far as "real" opera-related apps.) Clearly, that kind of branded ownership of a particular field or genre must be something that the Met would very much like to continue cultivating.