Friday, May 18, 2007

Reflected tastes

If Peter Gelb has made a watchword of the "theatrical", it's only to be expected. It's after all of a piece with his own tenure at the Met. He himself has had the leading role, strongly present while battling the Bad Old Days on the scene of... well, not necessarily the physical house, but the virtual Metropolitan Opera that exists in the newspapers and in the mind's eye of many never even there. And so he has given Natalie Dessay more prominence than ever, despite her post-surgical instrument; kept faith with Karita Mattila, including (apparently) a Luc Bondy Tosca for 2009; and has perhaps raised the energy level on the audience side of the house (though the relative dearth of new bloggers may suggest the opposite).

But if actual implementation of Gelb's stated goals has at times shown itself to be skin-deep or counterproductive, that too is of a piece. For as I noted from the beginning, Gelb has used and needed the appearance of change more than actual change. So when actual change, too, turns out to be about appearance, why not? (But let me be plain: neither plastic beauty nor advance reputation are "theatrical". Theater, as I've noted endlessly from this blog's third post, is a matter of presence, not surface or history, and trying to pass the latter off as the former shortchanges new operagoers.) In this vein, for example, the nominally audience-building ventures of moviecasting and rush tickets turn out to be principally enjoyed by old, often retired men and women of long acquaintance with opera and the Met who, though perhaps enjoying some frisson from participating in the putative future of opera, are by no means themselves that future. (Incidentally, I wonder if attendance has actually increased by more than what Agnes Varis and Karl Leichtman's gigantic subsidy prompted.) The productions turned in by Broadway imports Bartlett Sher and Jack O'Brien were undramatic clunkers. (I do, mind you, expect much better from Mary Zimmerman for the season-opening Lucia.) And so on.

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And yet it seems true that Gelb is de-emphasizing singing per se. For the moment it is tempered by the fact that his aesthetic ideas remain subordinate to financial reality -- that is, the need to accomodate audience-drawing legacy stars of Stimme -- but I believe it will grow more pronounced over time. Would a Stephanie Blythe (rightly singled out by Alex Ross as a counterpoint) ever in fact get a Met debut today? How about in 2012, if it's still Gelb's house?

From one broader perspective, this may simply be the end of American (that is, Met) exceptionalism in operatic aesthetics. Of course a generalization doesn't capture every production or every year over time, but the long-discussed truism that the Met has, compared to the great European houses, been rather more interested in physical sound than dramatic-theatrical elements seems, on the whole, fair. Part of this was the houses (both huge), part -- in a bit of touching irony -- the last mass media framework (the Texaco broadcasts), part the sort of singers more often grown here. But it goes deeper, I believe -- after all, vocal-theatrical legend Olive Fremstad was American, and forced out of the Met by Gelb's greatest predecessor Giulio Gatti-Casazza long before broadcasts began (though not long before Gatti-Casazza went on to dump Claudia Muzio, the greatest vocal dramatist we can hear on record).

For while opera was -- and still, largely, remains -- a court or governmental institution in Europe, it has been here a private enterprise, subject to the individual tastes of ticket buyers and donors and subsidized by government mostly indirectly through those tastes (the tax deduction).

Now it should come as no surprise that the circles of bureaucrats, intellectuals, and elite tastemakers in charge of state-backed opera have, collectively, tastes and priorities rather distinct from those in the broader and not-much-overlapping group of people who spend their own privately-earned money -- often quite a lot of it -- to support the art here. (Of course, this apparently has come as a big -- and nasty -- surprise to many a Euro-mandarin who's come to head an American arts organization, most recently Pam Rosenberg in San Francisco, so maybe it's not so obvious.)

What is different is not, I think, the range of tastes within a group -- every view in my original taxonomy is held, I think, everywhere -- but their balance. Many people come to the opera, give money, and stay loyal to the art because they just love the physical pleasure of the right voice. These are not, except perhaps for Jay Nordlinger, the people who end up writing opera reviews, not least because this sort of pleasure is too elemental to be verbal. I know a bunch of people like this: they may thrill to Jenufa as much as anyone, but in the end what they really want is to hear an echo of some particular primal tenor/soprano/whatnot sound that means "opera", preferably in a comfortingly familiar piece.

This perspective on opera is not, as I say, well represented in the official discourse, though it sort of runs amok on Opera-L (and the wierd hair-splitting and absolutism on such matters reinforces my sense of the futility of talk thereon). But something like it is probably held by most of the domestic audience. Here, where administrators are accountable, that has mattered -- what has been on stage has generally reflected this public taste.

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And yet this singer-centric traditionalist view has never sustained the Met on its own. There have always been additional draws, and additional threads: glamour, novelty, one sort of musico-dramatic rigor succeeding another. The house has needed all of these to stay afloat.

But none before Gelb have proposed to set one of these principles above singing, to Europeanize the house and its sense of opera. For though Gelb is American, with a much better understanding of American institutions than Gerard Mortier is likely ever to show, and though he may make odd bragging pronouncements about European houses, his respin of this house and its values clearly reflects a European sensibility. His imported new stars (Damrau, Netrebko, Gheorghiu), the emphasis on looks and versimilitude, and not least his taking for granted or worse the wishes of his core audience speak for themselves.

Now the reason for all this is clear: the core audience is stuck and -- with the post-9/11 drop in foreign tourism -- insufficient, while the marginal audience is the group that loves novelty, both real and imagined. But as a politician who keeps his eye always on putative swing voters may find himself abandoned by his base, so Gelb may find a nasty surprise in his house's future. Maybe not -- perhaps the repeated boom cycles of the "new economy" have created a entire class of novelty-loving arts-lovers-with-money -- but then it would just be opera that suffers.

In this thicket Gelb may be hampered by his sincerity. Why shouldn't he, as he seems to, believe in theatricality -- the true live charge of opera -- as its true being? As you may have noticed from reading this blog, I pretty much do myself. And yet the other perspectives on opera are also true, and there's no reason seasons shouldn't cater to all, in sequence or together. A man of his press savvy can surely sell all of opera's truths. The art is too big, too varied for a global monoculture, particularly one against the wishes of so many enthusiasts.


  1. After digesting all of that (and it took several readings), all I can say is that you may be right, but it will take several years to play out, with a lot of unpredictability along the way.

    A lot can happen between now and then; energy/buzz can only be sustained for so long. The problem with novelty is that eventually people lose interest. Tastes changed, whether blatantly, or subtly. So another quest for "relevancy" begins - the question being what gets lost in the shuffle. Because once an "aesthetic" (if you will) is lost, seldom is it found again. The question is, does it evolve, or devolve....

  2. "but it will take several years to play out"

    You are right. One factor that may come up is that we are in a sustained economic boom. Gelb's marginal/glitz strategy seems very much a boom-time method, and I wonder what might result if the fat years ended.

  3. I suspect the situation will end up rather like that after the boom times of "party-hearty" 1980s ended. There were a few years of turmoil in the boardroom, and eventually some stability emerged.

    People/pundits have been saying that the economy has been bad since 9/11, but it hasn't really been that bad, compared to say the 1970s. We've had a housing boom (that people have noticed) and a stock market boom (that people haven't noticed until now), and there's been lots of cash around. When that dries up (as it will), people (and consequently opera) will be hurting.

    If I had to prognosticate right now, I'd see the second coming of the 1970s. But then, I'm a pessimist anyway (you know that). Of course, even the 1970s ended eventually, but what will the state of live American opera (as you describe it, pretty nicely) be in the meantime? That's anyone's guess. Keep an eye out for Amber Wagner, is all I can say.

  4. There was a time when you could have an extremely intelligent discussion on opera-l and even, but that time is long past, sadly.

  5. I went back to opera-l recently after a long (5+ year) absence.

    It was like Coronation Street or any other "daytime drama": after a reading few threads, you you realize that you are just picking up where you left off. The plot lines (discussions/arguments) are pretty much the same, and the cast of characters doesn't change much.

  6. I think the rein of reason on r.m.o. was a very short one. I started reading it in something like 1992 and have the impression it wasn't around much before that. It was actually very helpful in learning about opera. By 1996 or so (I'm remembering these dates because they were approximately the dates I was in college) it seemed to have devolved into 80% drivel. Anyway, be that as it may...

    I think people are projecting a lot of their fears about the art form onto Gelb, inevitably, after a honeymoon period of projecting their hopes. I'm not sure it makes sense to say he's de-emphasizing singing. Dessay is literally the poster-girl for next season, and Dessay is hardly a pretty, empty-headed songbird, for example. Next season he's building a production around Anthony Dean Griffey and Neil Shichoff--neither one of them is (not to put too fine a point on it) hot; both are renowned for intense portrayals.

  7. Maury, eh? Your "counter-examples" fit my thesis rather well -- all are being put forth primarily for dramatic intensity, not sonic luxury. Now if it were, say, Fleming and Heppner in these productions, I'd have to rethink.

  8. I wonder what the American exceptionalism in opera you describe has to do with the dearth of a native American operatic repertory--and what kind of new American opera, if any, one might expect (or have expected) under such a regime.

  9. Interestingly, Gatti-Casazza had an active program of encouraging American opera during his tenure. (He also promoted native singers, though many, like Ponselle, had recent immigrant roots.)

    None -- unless you count Fanciulla -- really lasted, but he tried. Gelb has brought in Glass and commissioned Golijov. I'm not sure what one can divine from this besides his known preference for the already high-profile. I suspect that if he took opera-as-theater seriously he'd have found a way to do an American Tragedy revival, but we'll see.

  10. Ah, seems I misunderstood you, then, at least in part.

  11. It's nice to think The First Emperor will to the way of The Last Savage. (I know, not Gatti-era but I couldn't resist the symmetry.)


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.