The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2015

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JUNE 2015 Issue

Diary of a Mad Composer

The Metropolitan Opera is decadent and depraved.

That's not entirely the Met’s fault: the house is a reflection of the values of its milieu, the world of grand opera. But the Met helps to create and shape this world, which means that the institution has the power (through money, influence, and its place in the public imagination) to affect the confluence in which it stands.

Mezzo-soprano Leah Wool as Minerva and tenor Fernando Guimaraes as Ulisse in Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. Photo: Clive Grainger.

The confluence of grand opera . . . what does that term even mean? In the context of opera as a form in the Western classical tradition, it means nothing at all: there is no such thing as grand opera form. There is opera—sung music drama—and there is operetta, which is mainly opera with spoken dialogue and a light dramatic and musical tone. An opera may be grand, I supposed, but there is no grand opera.

Grand opera is instead a feature of the opera world, the world of divas, conductors, impresarios, wealthy donors, and opera fans. Put them together in a big hall with expensive seats and a notable personality on stage, and you've got grand opera, you've got the Met. And what you get on stage in grand opera is the overdone, overplayed era of romantic opera, which reaches its apotheosis in the decadent, depraved suicide-porn of Puccini and the bourgeois sensationalism of Strauss.

The Met dominates news about opera for the general reader. A year ago, there was labor strife, last fall it was the bullshit, pointless controversy over The Death of Klinghoffer, earlier this year there was James B. Stewart's profile of General Director Peter Gelb and the company's money woes (“A Fight at the Opera” in the March 23, 2015 New Yorker), and finally there was a profile of composer and musician Matthew Aucoin in the May 31 NY Times Magazine that wondered if Aucoin would be able to save opera. Opera is doing just fine and needs no saving. The Met, however, may need saving from both its fans and itself.

Stewart's article was the pluperfect companion to the house. It offered a hazy, inconsistent point of view, assumed operas were only made between 1813 and 1913, was full of the opinions of rich people, had no real point to make, and incited a lot of anxious opinion before it was, rather quickly, forgotten. In other words, it was very much like the bulk of the seasons under Gelb's direction. The Met’s cultural stature and social prestige draws attention from money and from publications like the New York Review of Books that could care less about opera outside of the house. Coverage of the Met is complicit with the house’s programming in forming the public perception that opera is everything from Rossini to Puccini, and nothing more.

The Met is grand—you can spend three figures on a ticket and sip champagne at intermission, provided you get in line right away—but it is only infrequently good. At 4,000 seats it’s far too big, and that hurts opera, because it requires singers who can project even if they have few other redeeming qualities, makes for expensive productions, and means that drop-offs in ticket sales disproportionately hurt the bottom line.

And the bottom line is hurting, there’s no argument about that. What to do about it has been up for debate, and despite the disagreements between Gelb and some prominent board members, the upcoming season has everyone on the same page: 20% Puccini, Donizetti’s complete Tudor trilogy—with the casting stunt of soprano Sondra Radvanovksy in the leading role in each opera—and only two operas composed after 1900, although one of them is Strauss’ Elektra so that doesn’t count (Operabase calculates that the most frequently performed 20th century opera composers are Puccini and Strauss, which just goes to show a date ain’t nothin’ but a number). I hope the quality will be fine, there’s never anything wrong with seeing a good production of a good work, but the season is stunningly predictable and ordinary.

The Met board and administration want to get newer (meaning younger) audiences coming to the house, and younger audiences do come, but only for particular curiosities; they are not drawn to the world of the Met. The programming for next season reflects the self-identified opera lovers who feel that nothing that happens in a libretto or on stage is irredeemable, that the beauty of the music, such as it is, somehow enobles Cio-Cio San’s blood spilling across the stage, or that the infantile, grasping vulgarity of the rich in Der Rosenkavalier is somehow admirable. Why would younger audiences be interested in such things as anything other than artifacts of an alien time and culture? Optimistically, they’ll go see La Bohème, but why would they ever go back, year after year, when they can watch Girls? Why do they need the blood and the embarrassing fin-de-siècle eroticism of Elektra or Salome when they can stream an Eli Roth movie? And the one opera that can speak to their world, Alban Berg’s incredible Lulu, has only eight performances scheduled.

Like most big, board-driven arts organizations, the Met’s answer to failure is to redouble its efforts at doing the exact same thing. Regardless of the talents Gelb may have as an administrator, what he has put on stage has shown that, aesthetically, he is a man without qualities, with no particular taste whatsoever and an inclination to chase trends and famous names. Each Robert LePage production is worse than the last, but he’s well known, so expect many more to come. Successes like the Vegas-style production of Rigoletti increasingly seem accidental.

Imagine an opera season that extended chronologically from Monteverdi to Mozart. It would be filled with fantastic music drama—L’Orfeo and Le Nozze di Figaro have never been surpassed in the opera literature. Earlier operas allow for refreshing and rewarding thinking. The realization of the score might be open to real interpretation in terms of structure, instrumentation, and more—a perfect example is a new recording of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (Linn) from Boston Baroque. The ensemble's director, Martin Pearlman, created a new performing version of the score, including writing new music for passages where Monteverdi indicated instructions but no notes. The recording is both excellent in its own right and new, standing apart from other documents of the opera in a way that a new Ring cycle never could.

You won’t see Monteverdi at the Met, though. There is Mozart, but the house is too big—to appreciate the music you have to sit close, and that means paying even more. The loss of City Opera—destroyed by a board that coveted grand opera prestige—means that there is no company in the area to reliably bring Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart and the like to the stage.

We can see a lot of new opera, though, because the form is thriving. Robert Ashley’s Crash was revived just a year after its premiere, produced for several nights at Roulette in April. The performers were more familiar with the work, Tom Hamilton could do more with the sound, it was superior in every way. Crash is an out-and-out masterpiece, a tremendously beautiful and moving exploration of the quiet drama of one man’s life, and for all of Ashley’s reputation as an avant-gardist, his operas are fundamentally just 21st century updates to Monteverdi’s means and style. And I’ve been digging a new recording of an opera from Gene Pritsker, with a libretto by Jacob Miller, Manhattan in Charcoal (Composers Concordance Records). The piece is inventive, charming, witty, evoking Scènes de la vie de Bohème without pandering toward the tragedies of the poor. It’s emblematic of a kind of new opera—modest in scope, deep in drama, and full of fine music—that you can find everywhere, especially at the annual Prototype Festival. If you care about opera, why would you ever go to Met?


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2015

All Issues