Tag Archives: Metropolitan Opera

If I Ruled the Met (Part I) — Idiots at the Opera are Back

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.)

More Idiots at the Opera, Act II

So as I mentioned in a previous post, my media-naranja y yo have become mid-life opera fans.  So far this season we’ve seen three productions at the Met.

Let’s start with Carmen, which my husband refers to as the Guys and Dolls of opera, meaning even regular guys (of the hetero non-metro variety) can enjoy it and everyone knows the songs.  You do. You really do.  The production we saw featured Anita Rachvelishvili in the title role playing it in full earthy mode, Yonghun Lee (realistically eye-candy enough for the Don Jose role), Kate Royal almost (not quite) stealing it as Michaeli, and Dwayne Croft (an American) as an appropriately pompous Escaramillo.

Here’s what you need to know if you see it —  the ending (which like the songs, we already know) really isn’t inevitable. It shouldn’t be a tragedy. It’s like one of those post-Hays code movies where they make the bad girl pay at the end.  Michaela should have just shown up, gotten between Carmen and Don Jose and talked some sense into the boy.  Then the whole chorus could have gotten on stage, and  Carmen could have reprised a rousing Habanera, ending with the two couples embracing.

Speaking of old movies, I get that opera plots are supposed to be ridiculous, but Carmen is kind of extra-special ridiculous in exactly the same way that the old tearjerkers Carol Burnett film parodies were ridiculous.  Take the scene where Carmen and Don Jose are outlaws living in the Gypsy-smugglers mountain hide out, which by the way is supposed to be a hide out which means nobody is supposed to know where it is. Michaela just shows up having presumably climbed the mountain solo or something in order to try to persuade Don Jose to come home to his dying momma.  That absolutely should be played for laughs, as should all Don Jose’s nancy-boy tears when whining about his sainted mama.

Then we saw Le Nozzi di Figaro.  I was looking forward to it because in addition to its being an opera by Mozart, it was produced by Jonathan Miller, and I’m a fan because he’s not only a theater and opera director, but he’s also a member of the tribe and a doctor, and one of the founding members of Beyond the Fringe, and if it hadn’t been for Beyond the Fringe there never would have been a Monty Python’s Flying Circus and what would the world be like then?  However, in opera-world produced doesn’t mean what you think it means. It just means once upon a time a hundred years ago someone produced it, and every few years they trot out the same sets and maybe the same of the original staging or something.  There’s this unfortunate bit that kind of throws things off, and I’m not sure whether or not Miller is to blame. The situation is this: Susannah a servant to the Countess is engaged to Figaro who is in the Count’s service. The Count as feudal lord gets to take the husband’s place on the wedding night. It’s good to be the feudal lord. Only Susannah would really like to avoid that.  So we need Susannah to be spunky, but kind of virtuous. If she’s easy than what’s the big?  But there’s this scene where Cherubino — this cute young thing — sings to Susannah about how he just can’t help himself around the ladies (especially Susannah’s boss, the Countess), and in this production Cherubino and Susannah start to briefly make out.  It’s jarring, and the only excuse for it I could think of is Cherubino is a trouser role, so maybe some idiot thought it would be hot to watch two chicks kissing.

Other than that we enjoyed the show, but it was announced before the curtain rose that Majia Kovalevska, playing the Countess, had a cold but was singing anyway.  We’re musical ignoramuses so except for a couple of places where her reach clearly exceeded her grasp, we thought she was okay, but the next day I saw and heard some clips of Renee Fleming in the role, and suddenly it came to life.  The songs were about something and there was all this nuance that just wasn’t there.

January 2nd we got the New Year off to a good start with Turandot. Last spring we visited Italy including the Puccini house in Lucca, which houses the original costumes, so I was really excited about seeing this grandest of all grand operas.

Basically, the plot was borrowed from a Persian folk tale although the opera is set in China. Not real China, but once-upon-a-time China as imagined by Europeans. A cold Chinese princess, Turandot executes suitors who fail to answer her riddles. The body count is high.  Calàf, an exiled prince in hiding, runs into his long lost father a deposed king, and his servant Liu. Liu has stayed with the now blind old man, caring for him and even begging for him although she risks her life by doing so as enemies are still looking for him (and Prince Calàf).  When Calàf asks her why she’s stayed, she tells him it’s because he (Calàf) once smiled at her.  The scene is set in front of the palace where one of Turanot’s rejects is about to get the axe.  Calàf falls totally in love with the princess at first sight and decides to ring the gong that signals he’s taking the challenge — this after watching the handsome Prince of Persia give away his jewels before his head is placed on a stick.

For those who don’t get that opera is as much about acting as singing, there’s a  non-singing bit when we first see the princess.  She’s revealed to us high up on the stage through what might be a palace balcony or window.  The crowd is going crazy begging for the life of her gallant suitor, and she raises and then lowers her arm to cut them off and signal for the executioner to take his head. We haven’t even heard her voice yet, but Iréne Theorin in the title role already establishes incredible authority and badassness with the gesture.

Once again, there is the trope (in opera, melodrama, and classic cinema) of the self-sacrificing good girl (Liu) who loves the hero, versus the bad girl (Turandot) who is loved by him.

This production was by film-director Franco Zeffirelli, and calling the stage set elaborate would be an understatement.  There’s a long intermission between the fist act, which takes place in front of the palace and the second act, which takes place inside of it.  Even in the balcony we could hear hammering from behind the curtain.  When the curtain went up there were gasps (including my own).  I’d never, not on any Broadway stage, witnessed anything like it. The depth of the set is astounding.  Way in the back, were two masked figures that I thought might be statues.  I grabbed my binoculars for a better look. They were indeed human beings later revealed to be acting as a kind of human curtain for the emperor (Turandot’s father) sitting on a throne.  While the singers weren’t quite overwhelmed by the set, they came close to being so, especially the poor emperor who was seated so far from the stage that he could barely be heard above the orchestra.  The set reminded me of those 1930’s, 1940’s Hollywood musicals, in which the numbers were supposed to be happening in a nightclub or Broadway stage, only t it was obvious they were filmed on a ginormous sound stage because no theater stage could possibly hold that many people.

Puccini (I read later on the Wikipedia) had trouble scoring the final act.  It’s easy to understand why.  There’s no realistic motive for Calàf’s obsession with Turnadot and his willingness to die for her.  He answers her riddles correctly, but when she wants to out of the deal, he offers her till morning to figure out his real name and is willing to sacrifice himself if she does so.   She then threatens all of Peking (or where-ever they are) with death if someone doesn’t cough up a name by morning. Where does Calàf’s love for a mass-murderer come from?  We have stories in which handsome princes wake sleeping beautifies from death-like states with love, but here Turandot is death.  Puccini died before completing the opera. The music was finished by another composer, and within opera-world there is still controversy regarding the ending, and whether the score and libretto achieved the goal of making the tale mythic enough for us not to question the absurdity of Calàf’s being crazy about a woman whose extreme cruelty he’s seen in action.

The reason why the opera succeeds is because of the absolute beauty of the score and especially because Turandot contains another one of those songs that you already know even if you don’t know opera, Nessun Dorma (No One Will Sleep).  The aria is sung by Calàf during the long night that will inevitably end in one or more deaths. Nessun Dorma is straight out just one of the best melodies ever written, and seems to be composed on a magical frequency guaranteed to communicate a plethora of emotions including loneliness, love, and hopelessness which transforms into hope, even certainty, that the quest will end in victory. You don’t need to read the supertitles.  It’s the glue that holds the whole crazy megillah together.  It’s also what opera is all about — music that makes you feel and drama that may be bigger than life, but is not bigger than what goes on in our heads and hearts, that in fact, validates feelings and offers catharsis.

The Met has a clip of Nessun Dorma being sung by Marcello Giordani, who alternates the role of Calàf with Marco Berti in the current production.  Unfortunately, it’s not embeddable, but here from YouTube is Placido Domingo, at his prime doing it justice.