Having survived my seventh season as general manager of the world’s largest opera company, I have recently been traveling in Europe, assessing singers and overseas productions, and negotiating to include some of them -- like the brilliant new Salzburg Festival production of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” -- in the future artistic plans of the Metropolitan Opera.
With the economic crisis bringing Europe to its knees, leaders of opera companies over there are being forced to think more about their audiences than ever before, as government subsidies are cut significantly back.
Of course, we in the U.S. don’t have this problem, since we have hardly any public subsidies to begin with -- which is why our government hopefully will not reduce the tax benefits for our loyal donors any further than it already has.
Opera dwarfs its descendant, the for-profit Broadway musical, in its epic scale and grand musical ambition. Unlike Broadway, with its comparatively small, amplified pit orchestras, opera musically goes for it all, boasting hundreds of orchestral musicians, choristers and star singers to perform together in staged spectacles that defy financial logic.
In order to avoid becoming a cultural dinosaur, opera must continue to attract an audience that will not only buy expensive tickets, but also make generous donations. (Last year alone, the Met raised $150 million in contributions to balance its budget.)
Reinterpreting the classics with a new breed of opera stars who possess acting skills to go with their high C’s, and guided by conductors, directors and designers at the top of their game, we at the Met aim to offer extravagant yet sophisticated entertainment.
Of course, most of opera’s past success was based on its ability to entertain audiences, which should be self-evident to anyone who has been moved by the tragic circumstances of Verdi’s “Otello” or tickled by the comic relief of his “Falstaff.”
But today the notion that high art can also be entertainment is anathema to those who think that genius is not suited to accessibility and that opera presentations should be a Spartan exercise.
This concept has potentially threatened opera’s very existence, resulting in the staging of some operas over the last several decades that misguidedly deconstruct familiar plots, thereby depriving audiences -- particularly new ones -- of the satisfaction of being able to follow the original storylines.
That’s how “Rigoletto” came to its infamous German production, where the action was set in a post-apocalypse “Planet of the Apes” world, with most of the singers, including the Duke of Mantua, in ape suits. It is also how a recent Dusseldorf production of “Tannhauser” ended up being set in a gas chamber. (In the wake of protests, it was quickly cancelled.)
Now, with global finances for the arts tightening like never before, a reality check is in order. Since opera is an art form that depends on the positive response of the public and on attracting new audiences, it’s not a good idea to turn off either. Audiences are not going to spend hundreds of dollars on tickets to be confused or insulted.
In 1904, when Puccini’s original two-act version of “Madama Butterfly” was met with stony silence at its La Scala premiere, Puccini immediately went back to the drawing board to re-work it. The following season, “Butterfly” returned triumphantly in a new version that the public found highly entertaining.
Verdi, too, worried about the size of his audience, believing it to be the single most important factor in judging the success of his compositions. Both Verdi and Puccini rejoiced in knowing that their most appealing arias were hummed outside of the opera house in the main streets of Italy, a popularity meter of the times.
Opera cannot exist in a vacuum. While experimentation is essential, we must also have the widespread support of the public, particularly when we have thousands of seats to fill in the larger opera houses. (The Met is the biggest with 3,800 seats.)
It is possible for a single work of performance art to achieve success on more than one level, appealing to both the experienced operaphile and the newcomer -- if the storytelling is good.
Fortunately, there have always been creative stage directors who are up to the challenge, unafraid of the potential backlash that sometimes accompanies a lucid staging.
Before the late Anthony Minghella directed his stunning “Madama Butterfly” at the English National Opera and at the Met (the first production I presented in 2006), he was asked by a skeptical critic, “What are you going to do to ‘Madama Butterfly?’” In response, Anthony said, “I’m not going to do anything to ‘Madama Butterfly’ except tell the story.”
Minghella’s breathtakingly beautiful production went on to become a huge hit in London and New York. Even the critics loved it.
In our most recent season at the Met, Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer staged “Rigoletto” in a 1960’s neon-lit Las Vegas setting that resonated with traditionalists as well as the uninitiated because the story, though updated, clung faithfully to the plot.
The court of the misogynous Duke was moved from its 16th-century Mantua palace to a 20th-century casino. With its spectacular self-illuminating sets, it was opera delivered as high-minded entertainment for a 21st-century audience.
Although the Rat Pack might not have approved of seeing their antics depicted on our stage, I’d bet that Verdi would have been pleased by our packed houses. As he once said, “Opera of today will also be the opera of the future.” Our job is to be true to Verdi’s word.
(Peter Gelb is the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, whose 129th season opens September 23 with Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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