Posts Tagged ‘The Metropolitan Opera’

Something Rotten In The Opera House In Gotham

In Classical Music, Opera, Richard Wagner on May 22, 2012 at 7:09 pm

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?

Further Reading
1. La Traviata – The Beauty & Brutality
2. A ‘LuSch’ FroSch in Clever Vienna
3. Wagner Finds His Northern Soul

More Circus Clown Than Ring Master – An Open Letter To Robert LePage

In Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on April 23, 2012 at 8:34 pm

Dear Mr LePage

I start off with a series of confessions.

First, I have not seen your interpretation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in its entirety. Not yet. But I have seen Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung. The first on Opening Night in New York as well as the second performance in that run, and Götterdämmerung courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera’s excellent HD Live Season.

Second. I am a Wagner fan. Perhaps a ‘purist’ but not a ‘cranky’ operagoer. But a great admirer of Wagner and of opera as a whole in it entire dramatic sweep.

Third. I have seen a few complete Ring cycles live, most recently in San Francisco and more than a few on DVD including Kasper Holten’s Ring from Copenhagen and Chereau’s thought-provoking interpretation. And I have seen individual performances from the cycle in both the United States and Europe including the Schenk production in New York.

Therefore I read your interview in The New York Times with interest and increasing anger.

Of course any production will have its detractors. Its naysayers. The people who simple refuse to ‘get with the project’. But I find your position, well, faintly ridiculous and offensive. And I don’t only mean your criticism of the ‘purists’ and ‘cranks’ many of whom, I might incidentally add, funded your project through the benefices of their sponsorship and support.

And of course I stand corrected if somewhere along the line The New York Times has in some way misquoted you. It happens.

But your argument, in fact your rearguard defence given in the Met’s ‘unadorned office’, simply does not quite gel. Not for me.

On reading, and re-reading the article in question, I was struck by your claim that after focusing on each opera individually, you can now more easily ‘envision’ the quartet.

I have worked in the industry and seen some of the best producers and directors at their ‘business’. I have looked on as they have struggled to bring together sometimes disparate ideas together into one coherent narrative – and not always with total success. So I have to ask, did you not step back at any time and see Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung as a whole – ‘a package’ (Really? A package) – at any moment from after you put the phone down on Peter Gelb and said, “I’ll do it”?

Even on the most basic of production issues did you not check and redress in rehearsal (and I seem to remember that you were given a great deal of rehearsal time) that the projections could be seen on the singers’ bodies?

And most vitally has it really taken countless individual performances before you would concede and take action on the “groaning and grinding” of “that monster”? It’s almost arrogant to reach a solution that involves only moving them in the “less quiet moments in the score”. Thank goodness – I can almost hear you say – for Wagner’s ‘loud bits’.

And as for the direction of the singers, this is something that the majority of critics, bloggers and people who attended commented on. Direction. What direction? From before the very first Ring cycle was performed at Bayreuth, Wagner was very clear on the relationship of his music to the staging. And of the required acting ability of his singers. I am glad that Siegmund and Sieglinde are going to spend more of their time toward the front of the stage. My recollection was that they are already spending quite a lot of time at the front of the stage. It’s just that they aren’t being directed in what to do when they are there.

“People are protective”. Yes they are. But shame on you. Even amid all the stories swirling around about having to strengthen the stage and ongoing technical troubles there wasn’t a person in the auditorium on any given night – or in a cinema somewhere in the world – who didn’t give the production – and you – the benefit of the doubt.

And ‘false’ debate? If you are going to construct a 45-ton set of planks then expect debate. Welcome discussion. And listen. I don’t deny that giant transforming sets have been used elsewhere. But I can’t think of one before this that consumed everything before it – singers, orchestra, dramaturgy, narrative and originality.

I would argue that everyone who sits in the opera is there for the music. Focused on it. Music first. Production second. A good production enhances an opera. A fantastic production can result in greater and deeper understanding and insight. Opera is a combination of various elements including the music and the production. Funfairs and circuses provide spectacle, often using multi-ton machines that do creak and moan but for the very reason that it doesn’t matter if they do so. It doesn’t detract from the pipe-organ music of the ride.

But not at the opera. The audience can and does deal with, and accustom themselves to appropriate scene-changing noise. But your “monster” made that impossible.

As to your point that The Ring is ‘always dipped in these layers and layers of social-political stances’. It’s right and proper that directors should reinterpret Wagner and often they will look to their own society as well as the past to do so.

For them it magnifies the ideas of the Ring. It personalises it. But you didn’t magnify the ideas of The Ring. You smothered them. There was no personality or character in your bland interpretation. And by the way opera singers don’t only use their eyes to magnify the emotions they are experiencing. Ask them and you’ll find out it’s much more complicated than that.

And so to the ‘purists’ and the ‘cranky’ operagoers. I have never heard anyone I know – and I count myself sometimes as a cranky purist – say “We don’t want those people because they don’t know what opera is”.

The majority of those who go to the opera – however often – are well aware of the difficulties and dangers this art form is facing. Falling sponsorship, tighter budgets and the need to attract new and younger audiences.

Yes some people do sit there with scores. There’s nothing wrong with that by the way. But the majority of us sit back, listen and watch.

How absurd. How patronising. How insulting of the audience that you purport to entertain to dismiss them with a childish facial expression. Again. Shame on you.

Your Ring Cycle promised hope that it might meet some of these challenges head on and pose some questions. Sadly your patronising attitude just confirms one thing to me.

It was a vanity project. Yours. And Peter Gelb’s.

But well done. You did go back to the 19th century. You have created a modern take on a last-century folly.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

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