Now that the threat of a strike is over, and the season about to begin, I thought I’d write a series of blog posts, offering Peter Gelb unsolicited advice on how to run the Met because this is the internets where every idiot can express his/her/their opinion.
During the tense negotiations, I kept thinking that the unions were wrong about one thing – the problem wasn’t expensive silk poppies in Prince Igor. Even a stark production like the Willy Decker version of La Traviata is still going to be expensive, and spectacles bring in the audience. I gasped when the palace was revealed in Act II of Zeffirelli’s Turandot, and the Paris street scene in La Boheme is as a vivid in my memory as a visit to the actual City of Lights.
If the Met isn’t making enough to sustain itself – especially with live in HD, then the problem is elsewhere, and so are the solutions. I don’t know if Gelb himself took a pay-cut in the end, but that probably would have been a nice place to start. Granted, this isn’t Europe and the government doesn’t subsidize art here, but cutting back on sets or rehearsal time is NOT a viable solution.
I’ve been to performances that appeared to be sold out, but I’ve also been to plenty with empty seats. There’s a lot the Met could be doing to fill more seats – both with its HD performances and at Lincoln Center.
Don’t get me started on subscriptions. I’ll devote a later post to that. In brief, the current system seems designed to appeal to people who’ve subscribed for the past 40-plus years and still haven’t quite figured out e-mail. I’m also not sure why HD is NOT blacked out in the New York metro area. The only reason to have local HD would be for operas that have become phenomenons, where the shows are selling out and HD is the only way to accommodate all the people that want to see it. Otherwise, people should be encouraged to get to the Met, and there are all kinds of things they could be doing and aren’t doing to build up both the local audience and to convince tourists that a night at the opera is both a must AND affordable.
Not only does opera need to be made more appealing to more people, but people need to know that as a form of entertainment it’s not beyond their reach financially. Advertising must emphasize that the Met is a fantastic venue, and even the cheap-seats offer full stage views and clear beautiful sound. They need to know that while dressing up is certainly a nice thing to do, you can wear what you’d like, and spend far less than you would on tickets to a Broadway show.
One problem is that in recent years, the Met seems to be trying to go low-brow on some productions, to make them more accessible by dumbing them down. This is one of those short-term gain schemes that really won’t help in the long-term. In the 2012-2013 season I was eager to see the Vegas Rigolletto because in theory setting it in a rat-pack casino sounded exciting and fun, but the reality was the Guys and Dolls “translation” didn’t really work. The “curse” being delivered by an Arab sheik was nonsensical and racist. The staging wasn’t very good. What saved the show (if it was saved) was the dynamic performances of superstars Diana Damrau and Piotr Beczala What saved it, was that they didn’t screw up the music.
Even worse than Rigoletto, was the truly horrible “new book” for last season’s Die Fledermaus. Apparently, an English libretto with Broadway pandering worked in the 1950s and was a solid hit, so they thought they’d do it again only more vulgar for a new audience. They threw in the same break-the-fourth-wall-and-make-fun-of-the-poors-in-the-balcony schtick that half the shows on Broadway are doing, added several scenes that do nothing but explain what’s already happened (in case the audience was napping), and made the primary couple Jewish because it allowed them to throw in Yiddishisms which everyone knows are hysterical.
While this kind of stunt, might bring in the curious, it does nothing to increase the opera audience. The people who are going because they’ve heard it isn’t really like an opera, aren’t going to fall in love with opera and they aren’t coming back.
We (the better-half and myself) are still novices. It will be three years this spring since our first venture at the Met. The spouse got us tickets for my birthday. We didn’t go on my actual birthday because that night was Wagner, and uh you know. It was the next evening when they were performing the Willy Decker production of La Traviata, with Natalie Dessay (who actually showed up). We were blown away. Why? Because it was NOT a Broadway musical. Because the sounds we heard were beautiful and it seemed almost impossible that unmiked humans could be making them. Because it was pure emotion. Because big themes – love, death, lust, sacrifice, tragedy. Because it was one of the most fantastic experiences of our lives.
What if our first production had been Die Fledermaus? Would we ever have returned? I doubt it.
I’m not saying the Met shouldn’t be trying “new” things, but Gelb should not be dumbing down opera to reach a wider audience. Why not try to smarten-up musicals the way Glimmerglass does? Why not one classic or new musical suitable for an opera stage each season, with a mixed cast of Broadway belters and opera singers? How about A Light in the Piazza for a start? It’s mostly sung and definitely NOT one of those shows like Chicago or Grease where you could get away with stunt-casting. The singing roles take some serious chops. Some of it is even in Italian!
Here’s a clip:
The “Broadway at the Met” productions themselves wouldn’t need to be the most elaborately staged. The emphasis could be on the music and the musicianship of the cast and orchestra. It would be a great way of getting people who already like musicals to begin with to look at opera. It would bring new people into the house.
The Met could also commit to one American opera every season. Last season they did have a couple of English-language librettos, but I’m talking about operas that tell American stories – even if they aren’t always written by Americans. They don’t have to be new productions (but that would be awesome). Here are five possibilities: Moby Dick, An American Tragedy, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Ballad of Baby Doe, Treemonisha.
There’s lots more they could be doing to create a future generation of opera goers, and none of it involves making opera less opera-like. Next post will continue this. Meantime, feel free to talk amongst yourselves and comment.
(Idiots at the Opera is a continuing series of views and reviews written by a idiot who knows nothing about music, but loves opera. All views expressed are probably wrong.)