The Problem with the Met—and All Opera Companies

Pears Death in Venice

Peter Pears standing in front of the Metropolitan Opera in October 1974. Photo by Victor Parker

Even before the Coronavirus caused the Metropolitan Opera to shut down early, they were hemorrhaging money. Of course, the appearance of the virus from hell didn’t help matters much, at witness this article from Bloomberg published on March 26, 2020:

The Metropolitan Opera, one of New York City’s cultural icons, had its credit rating cut to junk after canceling its season because of the coronavirus epidemic.

Moody’s Investors Service downgraded $89 million of the opera’s taxable municipal debt two levels to Ba1 and revises its outlook to negative, indicating it could be dropped again. The opera, one of the largest cultural institutions in the U.S., has launched a campaign to raise $60 million to offset box office losses.

But it’s been bad for years, as witness this December 14, 2012 article from the same news source:

New York City’s Metropolitan Opera Association, which faces growing operating losses, sold $100 million worth of debt this week in its first such offer since it was founded more than a century ago.

But what exactly led the Met to such perilous times? Anyone who has been following the foolish and oftimes idiotic leadership of its General Director, Peter Gelb, already knows the answer, but for the benefit of those who haven’t I will recap it for you.

When Gelb first took the reins of the Metropolitan in 2006, many in the New York area were worried because he had run Sony Classical into a mountain of debt prior to his arrival, but one of his first moves was actually a very smart one. He began showing live telecasts of Met performances on a large screen in Times Square, where passersby could stop and watch a few scenes, one whole act or an entire performance of Madama Butterfly or whatever was the fare of the day. This was pure genius, as it brought opera to the masses in a way that hadn’t been attempted since the first nationwide radio broadcasts of the early 1930s.

Gelb then followed this up with another inspired act, leasing high-definition live telecasts of Saturday afternoon Met performances to selected movie theaters around the tri-state area at ticket prices considerably lower than those operagoers in the front rows paid. This, too, drummed up interest and some business.

But then Gelb went overboard, as he had at Sony, and killed the goose that laid the golden egg. He began overspending lavishly on productions, throwing money around as if it grew on trees. One small but telling example was in the Met’s production of Prokofiev’s War and Peace, where he insisted on pure silk poppies to be made and set up in a field scene. Unfortunately, the sycophantic music critics agreed with his unwarranted wasting of money. Anthony Tommasini, writing in the New York Times, basically said, Why not? After all, this is the Met, and patrons have come to expect only the best.

Unfortunately, his period of wasteful spending coincided with the massive recession of post-2008, when millions of Americans lost their homes, their investment portfolios and even their measly 401Ks that they looked forward to sustaining them in their golden years. Gelb’s reaction to this was not to cut back, but to raise ticket prices exorbitantly. Even long-time subscribers balked and refused to buy as many tickets as they had in the past. Some stopped subscribing altogether.

And when the loyal but working class opera patrons who depended on inexpensive seats in the Family Circle and the nosebleed seats saw their ticket prices double or triple, they stopped going, too. Gelb’s reaction was to say that if you couldn’t afford a ticket for the Met, he didn’t want you as a patron. That, too, was a really brilliant strategy.

In addition to all this, Gelb caved in to the pressure of Regietheater and started mounting expensive but bizarre productions that turned off the older crowd, and once again he dug his heels in and refused to retract his decision. On top of that, he booked lavish productions for new operas that were essentially awful music, such as The First Emperor, The Tempest and Kaja Saariaho’s much-ado-about-nothing opera, L’Amour de Loin. Ticket sales dropped even more.

Yet when one compares Gelb’s antics to that of major opera houses worldwide, he is not out of step with the crowd. Great Britain’s Covent Garden, the Paris Opéra and Opéra-Comique, La Monnaie in Brussels, the Vienna State Opera, Salzburg, Berlin Opera etc. etc. etc. all do the same things. The difference is that, because the U.S.A. pays for most of these countries’ militaries, they can afford to have their opera houses state-subsidized…yet even they are being run into the ground.

I’ve carped so much about Regietheater productions on this blog, first in my May 2016 article Regietheater: The Ruination of Opera and then in my more academic and perhaps better-reasoned version from February 2019, Eurotrash Revisited: The Academic Version, that I simply won’t go into that topic again. You can read my views there. What both articles go over is a point I have brought out over and over and over again in my reviews of contemporary and somewhat older 20th-century operas that are great, and that is this: Most opera directors aren’t musicians and couldn’t tell a good modern opera from a piece of trash if you hit them over the head with the score, and worse yet, opera audiences are still so tied up in the Cult of the Singer that they only want to hear their Golden Circle of 80 or so operas by dead composers who wrote in a tonal style with melodies they can hum and lots of high notes.

To a certain extent, I place a bit of the blame on Arturo Toscanini. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Italy as well as other countries were all still interested in NEW operas, but in 1902 Toscanini revived Verdi’s Il Trovatore at La Scala. The audience was incensed, not just because Trovatore was an older opera from a half-century earlier but also because it, and its tunes, had become hackneyed popular culture symbols for opera at its corniest and least dramatic. The fact that Toscanini conducted it in a taut, exciting fashion and presented a cast of good singing actors who brought the drama to life re-established this work. But Toscanini lived to see this gesture of his backfire; when he presented the world premiere of his friend Arrigo Boito’s opera Nerone at La Scala in 1924, there was some ceremonial hoopla because Boito’s Mefistofeles was an established classic and the man himself considered to be a leading figure in Italian arts and letters, but after a few performances it petered out and audiences stopped coming. Yet Nerone is still a fine opera, both musically and dramatically, and one of those that deserves to be revived.

But of course I can’t and won’t place all of the blame on Toscanini. When he came to the Met he insisted on reviving the operas of Gluck, one of his (and my) favorite composers, but only got as far as Orfeo ed Euridice and Armide. The Orfeo production proved to be a semi-hit, but Armide died at the box office despite the big-name casting of soprano Olive Fremstad and tenor Enrico Caruso in leading roles.

We can also look to Germany and the fate that Richard Strauss’ Elektra suffered in its early years. At its premiere at the Königliches Opernhaus in Dresden on January 25, 1909, the audience was so stunned, baffled and frightened by the opera that they didn’t even applaud when it was over. Although Sir Thomas Beecham conducted the British premiere as early as 1910, it didn’t click with the public for several years. The American premiere didn’t take place until October 1931 when Fritz Reiner led a cast including Anna Roselle, Margarete Matzenauer and Nelson Eddy, and the Met premiere didn’t take place until more than a year later, in December 1932. Despite what you may hear about New York being a hotbed of musical and theatrical innovation, it just ain’t so. I lived in northern New Jersey for the first 26 years of my life, went to the Met fairly often in those years, and saw Met audiences applaud tepidly for such genuine masterpieces as Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice (which, after that 1974 production, didn’t return to the Met for 20 years). I even know some still-living opera lovers who won’t even go to see a performance of the same composer’s Peter Grimes, another genuine masterpiece.

Strauss had to atone for Elektra by writing Der Rosenkavalier, an opera of such rubbishy music that I can’t even stomach to listen to it without getting nauseous, in 1912, and the wild enthusiasm of this opera led him to write similarly rubbishy operas in the years that followed. His only late opera that I consider to be a true masterpiece was Daphne, which premiered in 1938—but the first American performance didn’t take place until 22 years later, a concert performances given not at the Met but at Town Hall in New York in October 1960 with Gloria Davy as Daphne, Florence Kopleff as Gaia and Jon Crain as Apollo—none of them really star names—under the direction of Thomas Scherman. To this date, it has never been performed at the Met.

Nor have any number of great operatic masterpieces from the past. Go to the Metropolitan Opera’ online Archives and look them up. You will search in vain for such operas as Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Cherubini’s Medée, Spontini’s Fernand Cortez, and any number of great 20th-century operas such as Die Soldaten. The last time Spontini’s La Vestale was performed was in 1927 with Rosa Ponselle, and Gluck’s Armide has received only two performances since Toscanini last conducted it in 1912, and that was not at the Met but at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater of the Juilliard School in 2012. Indeed, the Met is so reactionary that they won’t even perform Luciano Berio’s finale to Puccini’s Turandot, which is infinitely better both musically and dramatically than the ending that Franco Alfano wrote in 1926.

Compare this to the Italy of the period 1950-1960. During that decade, for whatever reason, opera houses around the country presented an incredible mixture of outstanding older operas with the tried-and-true favorites. Go through the archives of various opera houses around Italy during those years, and you’ll find a surprising amount of neglected gems having been mounted, including Spontini’s Fernand Cortez and La Vestale, Cherubini’s Medea (in Italian) and Gli Abencerrogi, Mussorgsky’s Khovantshchina (another opera still never performed at the Met), Prokofiev’s War and Peace, even Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and The Rake’s Progress. Nor were these “throwaway” productions with no-name casts; on the contrary, they included some of the biggest names in Italian opera at the time: Renata Tebaldi in Cortez, Maria Callas in Vestale and Medea, Anita Cerquetti in Gli Abencerrogi, Mario Petri, Mirto Picchi and Irene Companéez in Khovantshschina and Picchi again in Stravinsky. Unfortunately, this period ended not with a bang but a whimper, and before long Il Trovatore and Tosca were back to rule the roost.

And where, oh were are Carl Orff’s great Gisei – Das Opfer or Antigone, Montemezzi’s L’Amor dei Tre Re, Othmar Schoenck’s Penthiselea, Szymanowski’s Krol Roger, Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé, Martinů’s Ariane or The Voice in the Forest, Hermann Reutter’s Die Brücke von San Luis Rey, Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten and so many more? Collecting dust somewhere. But you have to remember, as far as the Met is concerned, that we are dealing with an institution designed not as a promoter of great musical art but, from its very conception, as a showcase for Da World’s Greatest Singers. Aside from the fact that the Met was one of the first opera houses in the world to perform Wagner’s Parsifal once the initial copyright expired (although Cosima Wagner, the old witch, tried to stop it), most of the new operas performed at the Met in the decades since have not been great masterpieces or even the most interesting of the new and experimental operas. One such exception, for which we must again thank Arturo Toscanini, was Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, which he premiered at the New York house on March 29, 1911 with an all-star cast including Geraldine Farrar, Leon Rothier and, in the 1912 cast, Margarete Matzenauer as the Nurse. It ran a total of seven performances in 1911-12 and has not been heard there since. Yet the garbage that was brought to the Met in the period included an enormous amount of ephemeral nonsense, such as Frederick Converse’s The Pipe of Desire, Victor Herbert’s Natoma, an absolutely dreadful Respighi opera called La campana sommersa (in which baritone Giuseppe de Luca played a water goblin, dressed up something like the Creature from the Black Lagoon), Gruenberg’s trashy The Emperor Jones (interesting plot, terrible music), Reginald de Koven’s Robin Hood (a tremendous hit because it included the jaunty but forgettable ditty, “Brown October ale,” once sung by schoolchildren from coast to coast), Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount and two operas by Deems Taylor, The King’s Henchman and Peter Ibbetson, which combined had more Met performances than that of any other American composer. If it hadn’t been for James Levine, I’m sure that the Met would never have had any productions of Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini or Les Troyens, let alone Berg’s Lulu or Schoenberg’s Erwärtung, all operas that he pushed for during his decades-long stint as music director.

You have to understand that opera is drama in music. It is not drama set to hummable, bouncy tunes as a rule. It got its start in the Italian court system of the early 17th century with works by Jacopo Peri (Dafne, now considered to have been the very first opera ever written), Claudio Monteverdi and, late in the century, Henry Purcell. But there was already a decline in attitude between the period of Monteverdi and that of Purcell: except for his Dido and Aeneas, which has some very dramatic music in it, most of his operas consisted of pretty tunes warbled by pretty voices, some with plenty of Baroque folderol in them. It was the death knell of drama in opera for the most part. Even in Handel’s few really dramatic works, such as Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda and Samson, the sublime rubbed shoulder with more Baroque folderol. People started coming to see and hear the singers go through their vocal acrobatics, not to see and hear drama in music. Then came Gluck with his reforms, and Gluck influenced Salieri, Le Sueur, Cherubini, Méhul, Spontini and eventually Berlioz, but Berlioz was the end of this particular dramatic school of opera. The Bel Canto movement, which returned to dazzling runs and trills in music that wasn’t even as well written as the music of Handel, had taken over.

Giuditta Pasta, now considered to have been the first soprano to reinstill drama in operatic singing, was by no means a Maria Callas. Although she sang with great intensity, she had a terrible ear for pitch and was almost consistently flat, and in every opera she ever sang—even Norma, which Bellini wrote for her—she always threw in Rossini’s aria “Di tanti palpiti” because it was her calling-card and people wanted to hear her go through the coloratura runs and trills. Nor was the case of drama in opera much improved even in Wagner’s early years of success. The great German composer wrote thus, typically over-ornate in his language but right on the mark nonetheless:

(Those who) endeavor to force her narrow forms upon the Drama as of sole validity, this Opera-music has exposed their wretched stiffness and unyieldingness, till they have grown past any bearing with. In her mania for seeming rich and many-sided, she has sunk, as a musical art, to the utmost spiritual penury, been driven to borrowing from the most material Mechanism. In her egoistic feint of affording an exhaustive dramatic Characteristique by sheerly musical means, she has ended by losing all power of natural Expression, and won instead the doubtful honours of a contortionist and mountebank.

As I said at the beginning, that the error in the Operatic art-genre consisted in “that a Means of expression (Music) had been made the end, while the End of expression (the Drama) had been made a means,”—so the heart of the illusion, and finally of that madness which has exposed the Operatic art-genre in its rankest un-naturalness to the ridicule of all, we must then denote:

that this means of Expression wanted of itself to prescribe the aim of Drama.

In several cases, however, Wagner was not damning the composers themselves but the presentation of their work. He happened to be a big fan of Vincenzo Bellini because of his uncanny ability to write long scenes with almost inexhaustible melodic lines, several of which were quite dramatic. In fact, he admired Norma so much that he even wrote an alternate aria for Oroveso which he presented to the role’s creator, Luigi Lablache, who admired it but saw no way he could insert it into the score without disturbing the musical structure of the act. Nonetheless, one understands his point.

One may find it hard to believe that Giuseppe Verdi, author of so many popular operas, held similar views despite the greater tunefulness of many of his operas, but he did. By his own admission, his “galley years” were spent trying to please the public, so much so that he found it difficult, when writing an opera which he felt put the drama first, to avoid the bouncy tunefulness which had become his trademark, but except for some lapses in judgment most of his scores for Macbeth, Nabucco and Attila tighten and focus on the dramatic kernel of the libretto. Yet even in Il Trovatore, often considered to be the last bel canto opera ever written, he was trying to convey a dramatic arc in the music despite the conventions of aria, ensemble, cabaletta, chorus etc. An online friend of mine who is a monstrous collector of opera recordings argues with me that Verdi, being a “man of the theater,” probably didn’t care how his operas were performed as long as they were performed, but if so then why did he ask his publisher, Ricordi, to sue performers who “distorted” his music with unwritten high notes, trills and other flotsam and jetsam? Ricordi refused because they wanted the royalties, but Verdi never condoned many of the high notes that we now consider part and parcel of some of his arias and duets, particularly “Di quella pira” from Il Trovatore which, if you check the score, has not one high C in it (not to mention “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto, which does not go up to a high B at the end.) Eventually, Verdi got around this by writing music that was so through-composed that inserted high notes disrupted the musical flow, such as in Aida, Don Carlos, Simon Boccanegra, the Requiem, Otello and Falstaff, but that still hasn’t stopped scurrilous performers from adding them. When tenor Placido Domingo, a good musician who clearly knew better, sang the title role of Otello in Vienna in 1976 under Carlos Kleiber, he added a high note at the end of the duet “Si, pel ciel.”

And let’s not even start with the late Joseph Kerman’s groundbreaking (many would say highly controversial) 1956 book, Opera as Drama, in which he riled thousands of opera lovers by referring to Puccini’s Tosca as a “shabby little shocker.”

Now, of course I enjoy a certain amount of the older operas and like hearing them now and again, but they certainly don’t make up my daily operatic diet. I would much rather listen to most of Gluck’s operas than most of Strauss’, and the partial list of modern works I gave earlier in this article indicate that I am always on the lookout for dramatically interesting works. And yes, this includes great earlier operas that fulfill my definition of good music that carries the drama, such as Charles-Simon Catel’s Les Bayadères and Sémiramis (a far greater work than Rossini’s nonsensical Semiramide) and Chabrier’s superb comic opera L’Etoile, which even Stravinsky called “a little gem.”

But just look at what the great singers of today are forced to perform over and over and over: the same old pap of the past. Even as great an artist as tenor Jonas Kaufmann is now locked into singing La Bohème and Les Contes d’Hoffmann—good operas in and of themselves, but clearly not works I want to hear every single year. And how are new singers judged by the public? Why, by how well they can sing the old stuff. Where are the Mirto Picchis of today? Hard to find. Only a few mavericks like sopranos Barbara Hannigan or Anu Komsi try to sing as much if not more contemporary music as the old stuff.

For me, a great opera house must find a balance between great works that are seldom if ever performed and the popular stuff that draws in the crowds, but in my entire life the Met has never been one of those opera houses. They pretty much stick to the tried and true, and when they do present a new opera, as I said earlier, it is generally something quite inferior. I wouldn’t give you a plugged nickel to see a performance of Adès’ The Tempest, but I would surely tune in to hear one of the most underrated of all American operas, Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land—and that is a tonal work, albeit one without snappy tunes or high notes. This is the 21st century. It’s about time opera lovers grew up and realized that there’s a whole world of great works out there that they’ve never seen onstage, but should.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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