When Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the mantle of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, a palpable change was felt in the air, from Novosibirsk to East Berlin. Words like glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) began to replace the gradually outmoded Leninist philosophies that had become warped under Stalin and Andropov. The possibilities were palpable, and soon manifested into thousands of Muscovites calling for Gorbachev to resign in 1990, following the latter half of the decade teeming with what David Remnick aptly described for the New Yorker as “argument, truth-telling, irony, hysteria, and scandal” on state television.
But, as Remnick notes in the same article, Russian television now, 22 years later, has been closing its doors on glasnost and once again structuring itself out of perestroika. Crowds have once again to fill Red Square, and whatever stability president Vladimir Putin has fostered over the last decade-and-change has begun to show cracks in its façade.
“The strengthening of our statehood is, at times, deliberately interpreted as authoritarianism,” Putin says as a catchall excuse for the increasing number of outspoken critics against his leadership, the blogs and websites and viral videos and Twitter accounts that speak out against him when the people in the streets are not. His reelection earlier this month has only caused more outrage and ire, culminating in a closed-off inauguration event—tinted windows, blocked off streets, closed metros.
A similar event took shape in New York this year. While it’s foolhardy to compare global politics with the inner workings of one opera house, even the biggest opera house in the country, a similar pallor was cast over the Metropolitan Opera this year when the company announced its 2012-13 season: No press conference, no room for questions and answers, merely a sterile, standard e-mail. It sent a message bigger than any press release could.
In many ways, Peter Gelb has preached a glasnost and a perestroika since he assumed the title of general manager of the Met in 2006. Certain aspects of the company’s operations were shifted—the absorption of the company’s in-house opera shop (previously run separately by the Metropolitan Opera Guild), clearance for singers on the company roster to perform at the annual Richard Tucker Gala—and a greater openness was fostered by introducing the Met Live in HD, a program that exposed the house’s guts and gears—in HD no less—to cinema-goers worldwide.
“I intend to honor [the Met’s] great traditions and its loyal audience while hopefully arriving at the right formula of exciting new artistic initiative that will fill its seats well into the future,” Gelb said at a company news conference (back when the company still had news conferences) prior to assuming directorship in 2006. (Similarly, President Putin promised in this month’s inauguration speech that “I will do everything to justify the trust that millions of our citizens have placed in me. I see the whole sense and purpose of my life as being to serve our country and serve our people, whose support gives me the inspiration and help I need to resolve the greatest and most complex tasks. . . . We are ready for the tests and accomplishments ahead. Russia has a great past and just as great a future. We will work with faith in our hearts and sincere and pure intention.”)
It turns out the greatest tradition Gelb has honored, however, is that of making the Met a continually closed edifice. The brilliantly lit corners we see of the house in simulcast are just that: Corners in a far larger institution. Nearly four years after his optimistic proclamation from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, Gelb sang a different tune. While he conceded in 2009 to the New York Post that opera fans “have every right to be” opinionated, he groused about the criticisms he had recently received in that time, primarily lobbed towards the company’s controversial Tosca. “I hope they will evaluate the Met in the context of a whole season. And if they still hate what we’re doing, I’m going to be trying my hardest to continue to do what I am doing, because I believe it’s the only way to go.”
The crossroads between criticism and public accountability have proven to be the toughest pills for Gelb to swallow. His rhetoric in what interviews he does give (and those have been fewer and fewer over the last six years) has become more defensive. Responses to questions are full of what he’s not doing: “My intention is not to try to slap the audience in the face. I’m not trying to do that,” he told the Washington Post in 2010, later adding in the same interview that “I’m not trying to reinvent anything.”
This defensiveness is where Gelb and Putin diverge. When asked about the hot-button topic of notorious Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya’s 2006 murder, the Russian president merely sniffed that she was “a person of no importance.” Such a dismissive response may not have squelched the rampant speculation that the politician did play some part in the journalist’s grizzly demise, but it certainly kept many outspoken voices mum.
Conversely, Gelb has been making headlines in recent months for his own clashes with journalists. Per a statement made to the New York Times earlier this month, he argued that a WQXR blog post critical of the Met’s new Ring Cycle and a subsequent Times profile on Gelb “was objectionable… an awful and nasty piece, which in my opinion was totally unjustified.” Less than 24 hours after it was published, the piece disappeared from WQXR’s website.
Similarly, news broke on Monday that Opera News,the in-house publication for the Metropolitan Opera Guild, would no longer run reviews of Met productions. The general director told the Times yesterday that he was not a fan of the publication “passing judgment” on productions put on by the same company the publication’s parent organization was created to support.
Whether or not that’s true (and certainly, the oft-quoted line from Brian Kellow’s May column in the magazine, “The public is becoming more dispirited each season by the pretentious and woefully misguided, misdirected productions foisted on them,” is indeed not helping anyone with the initials “PG”), the muzzling couldn’t have been more ill-timed, happening one month following the WQXR debacle and in a realm of memory still smarting from the disappearance of blogger Brad Wilber’s Met Futures page.
In fact, it’s the Wilber case that smarts the most, nine months later. Both WQXR and Opera News have business partnerships with the Met that create more shades of grey than an E.L. James page-turner. Wilber, however, was an independent blogger whose website culling repertory and casting information for upcoming Met seasons included a disclaimer that his information should be considered speculative and that neither the author nor the website was affiliated with the Metropolitan Opera. The website went uncontested for nearly 15 years until the company’s general counsel requested it be taken down last year. Wilber’s website offered no criticism or snide jabs, just the earnest support of an eager fan.
At the time, First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams told the New York Observer at that time that as “a general matter the Met has no legal right to control what is said about it unless the material published is libelous or written in a way to suggest falsely that the Met itself is the author. Material in the public domain may freely be described so long as the copyright laws are adhered to and non-defamatory material from sources may be published whether or not it was confirmed.” The Met has yet to take significant action against artists who list upcoming production dates on their personal websites, often preempting season announcements.
In the last few weeks, numerous people have across all manner of media mentioned Gelb and Putin in the same breath. Both deny significant problems in their respective purviews, both have strained relationships with the press (indeed, both would probably just prefer that the press didn’t exist), both are preaching a time of openness that is in truth becoming more silenced and stilted than it was in the 1970s and early 80s, both are folically challenged.
But here’s the big, glaring difference: Vladimir Putin runs one of the largest countries in the world. Peter Gelb runs an opera company. Yes, there are consequences should either of these ships sink under their respective captains, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s the difference between the sinking of the Titanic and the sinking of a family yacht. Which makes the current leadership crisis at the Met all the more deleterious. While James Levine slinks further and further into disability leave and an impending retirement, Gelb has made it clear that “I am making all artistic decisions here.”
And, to be fair, some of those artistic decisions have paid off most handsomely. Though it’s perhaps mordantly ironic that two of the Met’s greatest coups under Gelb—a new production of Shostakovich’s The Nose and an imported wonder of Janacek’s Siberia-set From the House of the Dead—reinforce the company’s soviet environment. And, curiously, when Rene Pape made his Met role debut as Boris Godunov, he did so for the first time not as a Putin-esque figure, but as a historical tsar. That production, crippled as it was by a last-minute artistic switchup after initial director Peter Stein felt that Gelb was being unsupportive in his request to get an American work visa to helm the show, fell flat without a definitive vision. It was, like so many supposedly “cutting-edge” productions of the New Met, buried and beholden to tradition.
In such instances, it’s tempting to paraphrase another Putin quote: “Whoever does not miss the Volpe era has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain.”
Of course, applied in retrospect to the great white hope that washed over Lincoln Center in 2006, perhaps another Putin maxim is even more disturbing and apropos: “Nobody should pin their hopes on a miracle.”
“Lenny Abramov,” a journalist who writes frequently about the Met, has chosen to use a pen name on this occasion.