The Met: Can it be saved?
Short answer: yes. But let’s begin by dismissing a blatant canard. One thing that the Metropolitan Opera does not need to do is to scale back the number of performances in a season.
The greater New York Metropolitan area has 20 million people. 54.3 million tourists visited New York City in 2013. Many millions of people attend theater performances in New York City each year. Those numbers suggest to me that with an astute artistic approach, enhancements to the experience of attending the Met, outreach, marketing, ticket pricing, and a more sensible budget, the Metropolitan Opera should be able to thrive while producing 200 or more performances per season.
So what, specifically, will bring an audience to the Met for all those performances?
In the past, audiences came to the Met for its unique wow factor—the combination of starry casts and sumptuous, extravagant productions that was unavailable elsewhere. During Joseph Volpe’s tenure as General Manager, the wow factor diminished significantly; there were too many nights when the excitement ended once the chandeliers completed their magical ascent. Casting became increasingly lackluster and the company struggled to find production teams who could deliver the spectacle the audience expected on increasingly constrained budgets. New productions went from being a source of excitement to a source of dread. Attendance began a slow, inexorable decline.
To his credit, Peter Gelb recognized that he needed to give audiences reasons to be excited about attending operas at the Met again. He strove to do so by assembling a starrier roster of singers and conductors while offering more compelling theatrical productions using a contingent of directors who were new to the Met. But now, eight years and 50-odd new productions later, Gelb’s theatrical sensibilities are no clearer than they were when he was first named General Manager.
One might assume that the shows that represent the artistic highlights of the Gelb era – the new productions of Madama Butterfly, Satyagraha, The Nose, La Traviata, Parsifal, and Prince Igor—together are the embodiment of what he is trying to achieve as General Manager. However, they’ve generally been aesthetic dead ends for the company because only one of the directors of these signature stagings has returned to the Met. (And then, even the Satyagraha team couldn’t make much of that musicodramatic mishmosh The Enchanted Island.) The lyrical, poetic minimalism of that Satyagraha and Anthony Minghella’s Butterfly, a kind of “Wieland Wagner 2.0” style, struck me as an ideal approach for many other operas at the Met, but based on all the disappointments that followed, one can’t point to those early successes as the genesis of an emerging house style.
Instead, we got a gaggle of productions by acclaimed Broadway directors that turned out to be twitchy affairs, like the work of over-eager students trying to demonstrate mastery of a foreign language by gesticulating wildly and yelling. We’ve seen multiple productions from David McVicar and Richard Eyre that have turned out competent and uninspiring, hardly the kind of show that yields additional rewards in future revivals. The net effect is that Gelb has not inspired trust in his audience.
Great intendants have the trust and support of their public. This relationship allows their company to embark on explorations of repertoire that unfold over many seasons. They gain that trust by choosing their first new productions very carefully toinspire the public to follow them down a new artistic trajectory. Pamela Rosenberg’s failure in San Francisco was not a lack of imagination or taste, but rather that she didn’t help her conservative audience find their own way towards more experimental production styles; she knocked them unconscious and had them wake up a shabby room filled with discarded shoes and strange men in raincoats.
Gelb, on the other hand, had an exceptionally strong first season and the Met audience was largely excited and supportive. Yet, only one director from that first season ever returned for a second show and the goodwill generated with the opera-going public was squandered by the many dismal productions that followed with no artistic throughline back to that first season.
The trust can be built back, but the house needs to focus more on the quality of new productions, not the quantity. It’s likely better to wait for Willy Decker or Robert Carsen, or William Kentridge, or Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch to become available for return engagements than to churn out new productions with directors who, suspiciously, always seem to be “at liberty.” I see no need to aim for seven or five or even three new productions per season until the house has productive ongoing relationships with a set of directors that together provide a clear indication of the artistic priorities of the company. I don’t think the Met needs to restrict itself to just a handful of directors, but something is clearly askew when the directors who are busy at the Met are the ones who haven’t created anything memorable.
To be frank, Gelb has been at his most effective as a general manager when’s he has chosen productions off the rack , i.e., those he was able to experience in the theater. I wouldn’t mind if he did more cherry-picking of existing productions for the Met since the work will be largely new to New York audiences. The downside is that borrowed, bought, and co-produced productions can look awfully cheap and puny on the Met’s panoramic stage. Also, it doesn’t help the Met attract tourists, if the Met’s season is dominated by new productions that London operagoers have already seen and reviled.
The other prerequisite for the portfolio of new productions is that the Met needs more shows that look their best in this house and not on HD or in other houses. Offerings like Prince Igor or Madama Butterfly, which need to be experienced in the house for their full dramatic impact are necessary for the future of the company.
Even with a more satisfying set of productions at the house, the current Met season model of long runs of repertory chestnuts interspersed with brief runs of other works no longer seems to make sense now. Next season, the abecedarian Aida, Bohème and Carmen are scheduled to be performed 16 times, 15 times, and 16 times respectively. Are there really 60,000 people who want to see those operas next season? With the mostly so-so casts the Met has on tap? Opera lovers planning a special night at the Met would likely gravitate towards different fare.
As a result, I would think the Met needs to find a way to increase the number of works in a season to at least 30. Greater variety will bring opera lovers to see shows more frequently and create more reasons for out-of-towners to come. It might also inspire audiences used to seeing all the season highlights in the HD series to make the effort to get to the opera house. True, programming more shows creates more complex rehearsal logistics, but other companies manage more varied seasons with the same overall number of rehearsals as the Met.
One possibility might be to offer certain rarities in concert; as this type of presentation requires much less stage rehearsal. The hottest ticket at Salzburg this summer was for concert performances of Giovanna D’Arco. I would love to see this work come to the Met, but I’m not sure it’s worthwhile for the Met to even rent a production, particularly if it’s a production like the lifeless, hideous bus and truck show of Thomas’ Hamlet that came to the Met for Natalie Dessay.
Also, concert performances provide a singer-friendly way to try out new repertoire. Maybe Joyce DiDonato wants to sing Mignon, but she doesn’t feel like waiting five years until some company can scrape together a production for her. At the Met, she could not only debut the role in public, but have Diana Damrau as her Philene to boot.
Another option would be for the Met to have part of its season take place outside the confines of the Opera House. Imagine if each year, the Met did a mini-season of Baroque operas at BAM. I wonder if a run split between the Met and BAM would have helped Two Boys find the audience it deserved? I believe that BAM’s acting as co-presenter helped NYCO attract a bigger audience for Anna Nicole than they would have at a different venue. Staying in Brooklyn, an “arena style” concert at the Barclay Center featuring a few big name singers and high-tech visuals by 59 Productions could help the Met find a whole new audience. Performances in Brooklyn free up the house for stage rehearsals with piano.
Going on the road might even salvage the Lepage Ring. Would it be possible to set up the Machine at the Park Avenue Armory and leave it in place for rehearsals and performances? In effect, by building the Machine a custom theater, it would free the production of the constraints and compromises caused by the need have the Machine work in a repertory house. This might inspire Lepage to stage the opera as he originally envisioned it. And if the idea didn’t work, maybe the Machine could just be forgotten there or mysteriously re-routed and lost in Fort Lee traffic. In my fever dream of an itinerary for a peripatetic Met, the company could even turn up at Radio City Musical Hall for a few performances of Robert le Diable with the Rockettes high-kicking their way through the nun’s ballet.
Continuing to re-imagine the Met season, another way to build some excitement would be to end the season with a Festival as the Bavarian State Opera does. Selected shows from earlier in the season would be reprised for a few performances each. In addition, there could be concerts with orchestra, recitals, and something special to close out each season. I would end each Festival with a concert featuring performances by that year’s graduates of the Lindemann Young Artists Program and Met Auditions winners. What better way to end each season than to focus on great performances that lie ahead? In Munich, tourists and locals alike snatch up the festival tickets as soon as they are available. Wouldn’t this happen in New York as well?
A Festival with a grand finale creates a sense of occasion that the Met seasons lack nowadays. At the other end of the season, how about a reconsideration of a gala performance on Opening Night? Gelb has largely done away with the one-off gala performance. I recognize they throw schedules off in early weeks and cut into rehearsals for new productions. However, there’s something to be said for having Opening Night audiences see something that only they can get to see, especially if they are expected to shell out thousands of dollars a ticket for dinner and an overly long show. Do gala audiences really want to be forced to squirm through a four hour Eugene Onegin when the same show will be repeated at 1/10 the price three days later?
There’s no rule that dictates that the season’s biggest gala must be on opening night, either. Opening with a new production creates its own excitement. Why not have the season’s big ticket gala occur towards the middle of the season to create an adrenaline rush during the winter doldrums? The social calendar will recover from the disruption and the house will find it easier to accommodate rehearsals for a one-off show. We don’t necessarily need to go back to the Volpe-style random acts from random acts of opera or the eight hour marathon like the James Levine 25th Anniversary Gala. Peter Gelb devised a novel approach for the Met’s 125th anniversary gala and its fascinating glimpses into the Met’s past provided a rewarding evening.
I’m sure we Parterriani could crowd-source a couple of decades worth of suggestions for special evenings at the opera. I vote for a celebration of ballet at the opera with two or three acts from Verdi operas with their ballets restored. I would eagerly snap up a ticket to a show that featured Act III of I Vespri Siciliani with the celebrated Jerome Robbins version of the Four Seasons ballet and Act III of Don Carlos with the Balanchine Ballo della Regina. Heck, the Met could even demonstrate geopolitical sensitivity and present a night in the Ukraine (Iphigenie en Tauride, Mazeppa) – but that might not be very festive and it could drive Valery Gergiev away from the house permanently (sniff, sniff).
Similarly, if the Met wants to make New Year’s Eve a festive evening, why on earth choose a downer like a new production of Maria Stuarda in McVicar’s black and white and gray all over version? Shouldn’t more upbeat fare be in order? Shouldn’t the Met be performing something that makes the audience feel it’s seeing something special on a special night? When the new Die Fledermaus premiered couldn’t there have been a few special guests performing in the party scene? Couldn’t the Met chorus even have sung “Auld Lang Syne?” For that matter, wouldn’t it have been fun if during each performance of the Die Fledermaus run, there was a different surprise guest in the party scene? If this forced further cutting of the leaden Douglas Carter Beane libretto, that would be an even greater boon for the audience.
More could be done with programming (and marketing) to give each season a distinctive focus. Audiences need to be reminded that each year contains special repertory and casts that they might not get to experience again for quite a while. Well-chosen thematic underpinnings provide structure and sustained interest over the course of a long season.
This year’s season at the Met features three Bellini operas, but that’s not highlighted anywhere. One of the Met’s orchestral concerts could have had excerpts from La Straniera or I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Much more could have been done to acknowledge the Britten Centennial, particularly in partnership with Carnegie Hall, The New York Philharmonic or Lincoln Center. Themes could be chosen with special resonance for New York audiences. I could see a Met season, or more likely a pair of seasons, that features all the operas that Gustav Mahler conducted at the Met (not in Mahler’s versions, though, please), plus concert performances of all nine Mahler symphonies, songs with orchestra, and Das Lied von der Erde.
A set of works each season could be chosen by a performer, composer, or guest conductor in residence for the season. The guest conductor would get to conduct at least three operas, ideally including one new production, one revival of something not seen in a while and possibly a third opera that’s completely new to the Met. I believe that Thomas Adès’ next opera The Exterminating Angel is slated to find its way to the Met. Wouldn’t it be illuminating for the audience if Adès, who is a smashing conductor, got to lead other works of his choosing in the run-up to the premiere?
A season should be more than just a collection of operas chosen based on budgets, artist availability, and coverage of a formulaic set of repertory categories. Each season should be an opportunity for a well-curated tour of the expected and unexpected.
For that journey we’ll need better sandwiches, but that’s a topic for part three.
Photos: Cory Weaver (Prince Igor), Ken Howard (The Nose, Parsifal), Marty Sohl (Madama Butterfly), Silvia Lelli (Giovanna d’Arco), Paul Kolnik (Four Seasons).