There is no disputing that running an opera house is a tough job. It’s probably why John Berry is an outside runner for the job of Director-General at the BBC. Outside runner. Slightly ahead of Tony Hall one would hope.
Because it is a job that requires a finely balanced combination of artistic vision, diplomatic skills, and fundraising acumen. It also requires courage of conviction when it seems that the whole world despises you. And therefore it requires a skin thicker than the panels of LePage’s Wagnerian Machine.
Every opera house, every artistic institution in fact has a history that is littered with corpses of artistic conscience, fundraising tragedy and boardroom politics. Just look at the histories of either Covent Garden or – more recently – English National Opera. But both houses have stayed the course and weathered the storms and often vicious criticism without resorting to extreme measures.
So it’s disheartening and more than a little perturbing to see that, following the smallest of perceived slights, the Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb seems to be morphing into a character from a Shakespearean drama.
It would be somewhat sweet if the character was Bottom and inspiring if it was Henry V. But unfortunately something more sinister seems this way to come.
It began last year when a blogger was told to effectively “cease and desist”. His only misdemeanour was to – more often than not – correctly guess the Met’s seasons many years in advance. It’s not exactly a science if you can spare the time, can work a spreadsheet and have a deep and intense love of opera.
Yet the blog, A Bit B. E. Wildered, bewilderingly complied.
And last month, New York’s classical music station WQXR agreed to move remove a blog after Gelb protested to the management.. The reason? That it was critical of Robert LePage’s production of The Ring.
Now the Met’s General Manager’s relationship with its own magazine, Opera News has deteriorated to such a degree that the magazine has declared it will no longer review Met productions.
The reason? Because Opera News has twice criticised the same LePage production. Surely it can’t be the first time that this magazine hasn’t been effusive over a production at the Met?
There is no doubt that LePage’s production of The Ring has divided critics and the audience alike. Some have loved it completely. Others have hated it totally. The majority have sat somewhere in the middle, finding some elements breathtaking and weaker moments mediocre. But Opera News were nowhere as harsh and offensive as some critics I have read in the past.
And in a sense therefore LePage’s production has succeeded in that it has evoked strong emotions and debate. Isn’t that the purpose?
Wouldn’t opera – and all art for that matter – be failing if everyone just thought it was nice? If it didn’t elicit an emotional response regardless of what that emotional response is?
But clearly Gelb doesn’t see it that way. In an act of overt aggression, he has twice struck out against what is – quite frankly – free speech.
Rather than ask for a right of reply to defend the production, he has taken an extreme position. A blend of coercion and petty minded whining has forced through the result he wanted – that simply no one can have an opinion that is different from Peter Gelb’s.
Everything must be beautiful. And wonderful. There must be no discontent. Or opposing opinion.
How absurd. And how dangerous.
Absurd that Peter Gelb should think he is omnipotent. That he can control every aspect of his domain – because quite frankly doesn’t this behaviour seem to imply how he perceives his exalted position in this fiefdom?
And dangerous not only because it goes to the heart of freedom of speech but more importantly it risks stifling the very creative energy of the Met. Because if he cannot brook external criticism, however mild, who will have the strength to stand up to him within the confines of the Lincoln Center itself? What of the opinions and views of the artists and creatives themselves?
Just as importantly what if members of the audience decide they don’t like something. Will Gelb resort to banning them as well? He should be wary that this magazine is funded by subscriptions from donors. They are a tetchy lot and don’t like being told what to think or do.
But more interestingly does it say something deeper about the courage of Peter Gelb’s own artistic convictions? Are his actions the actions of a man proud of the artistic merit of a particular production he has ploughed so much time and money into, or are they the actions of someone who realises that LePage’s production is flawed? Perhaps that it cannot return after this full run to the stage again without substantial new investment? That to get this Monster to the stage he has had to make other artistic sacrifices?
In fact are these the actions of a man running frightened of the monster he has helped to create?
And what of the potential impact on the Met’s relationship with other opera houses? If Gelb takes such direct action when he doesn’t like what is being written about his company, what are the parameters of his reaction when a co-producing house wants to do things differently from the Gelb Grand Plan? Indeed one wonders what he makes of John Berry’s criticism of cinema screenings, a veritable cash cow for the Met and Gelb’s own baby.
Gelb has crossed the line between defending the faith and playground bullying. Sadly the only casualties will be both the Met itself and its audience.
UPDATE – It seems that Peter Gelb has relented although one senses from the carefully crafted press release that perhaps this was a decision foisted on the General Manager rather than a decision that he reached of his own volition. But now that he has bared his fangs can he so easily keep them retracted?