Saturday, February 25, 2006

Mr. Wainwright Goes to the MET

Singer Rufus Wainwright was a hit during the first intermission of today's MET's broadcast of Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila. He was just himself, and his bubbly persona was a good introduction to this artist. I am sure that a good number of broadcast listeners are not familiar with him or his music, and might only have heard of him for the first time after his name came up during the Peter Gelb press conferences in which the MET's new impressario announced that Mr. Wainwright is on the short list of composers commisioned to write a workshop opera under his proposed new project. Rufus Wainwright's music can best be described as alternative with, at times, strong leanings towards the operatic. For example, in the first cut of his latest album Want Two, a composition called Agnus Dei (which was alluded to in the intermission conversation he had with announcer Lisa Simeone), the composer takes the Latin text of the Catholic mass and sends it on a musical journey through time starting in a primitive Celtic world, then traveling to Moorish Spain, and finally coming to an impressive climax in the post-Romantic era of Mahler and Bruckner. He is very imaginative, very talented, and totally in love with opera. His young vibrant personality came through in the interview, sounding like an approachable celebrity, rather than a laconic, introverted artist. He showed insight when discussing his personal links between opera, the AIDS crisis and the affect that it has had on a young gay man like himself. He even showed a hint of nerves during the interview when he could not think of the name of Leontyne Price. On the other hand, although announcer Lisa Simeone conducted a fairly enjoyable interview, and did ask the right questions, I don't believe for a minute that she did not know that Mr. Wainwright had been commissioned by the MET to write some kind of work. If she really didn't, then I would recommend that she do her homework before stepping up to the mike.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Anthony Minghella's Butterfly

By all accounts, Anthony Minghella's Madama Butterfly at the English National Opera, and soon to open the 2006-2007 Metropolitan Opera season, is a masterpiece. It is innovative, bold, but still very much in the spirit of Puccini and western opera. Edward Seckerson in The Independent wrote that "This Butterfly is at once the simplest and most sumptuous thing we've ever seen in this theatre. It is the meeting of Japanese kabuki and Western opera but shot through with the expensive air and finely tuned manner of a Broadway show. When Butterfly's wedding party arrives, it too rises over a turquoise horizon and processes downstage as if seen through a shimmering heat haze."
He went on to report that the boldest innovation in the production is the use of puppets, in particular with the mute character of Butterfly's child, Sorrow. He writes: "Instead of a child, three wonderful puppeteers breathe tangible life into a little Japanese doll in a sailor suit. The physical detail, the restless, excitable, mother-clinging actions and reactions are such that a child actor could never give us and after a while you stop noticing the puppeteers and, like Butterfly, you see only genuine emotion and need in the impassive doll-face."
To me, the whole concept sounds quite wonderful, and my only concern with this approach to Butterfly is that the production could be swallowed whole by the sheer size of the MET. The London Coliseum is an intimate theater as opera houses go, and the subtleties of a little puppet are perfect for this jewel-box of a theater. Is it possible that it can work at the MET? Sounds to me like the patrons in the orchestra seats will be the ones who will end up receiving the full impact of Mr. Minghella's brilliant concept.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

This'll get'em in, by George!

The English National Opera has been advertising their current season at the London Colisseum with plenty of captivatingly sexy images these days. Pictured on the top left is an image from the Billy Budd ad, and below an image for Dialogues of the Carmelites. In the hopes of dusting the cobwebs suggested by the word opera, the ENO's advertising campaign reveals a sleek world where the lyric theater promises to meet trendy London. The new ad campaign is designed to lure in members of Generation X and Y, Baby Busters, Yuppies, and Bobos who, up to now, have stayed away in droves from opera.

Across the Pond, the New York City Opera, among others, has also adopted similar ad campaigns to get the young people in. And although they have not been using flesh to fill seats, little tricks such as listing repertory using one word "hip" titles (Butterfly, Figaro) often appear in their advertising.

As the Metropolitan Opera prepares to welcome Peter Gelb, we are reminded that the MET has plans to replace the current Madama Butterfly production with the current smash hit at the ENO which has been helmed by superstar film director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley). I am sure that as Mr. Gelb becomes entrenched in his new post at the MET that this is the style of advertising that will begin to appear to compliment the new productions that will be filling future repertory.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Goeran Gentele Revolution

The recent Peter Gelb news conferences have brought on many conversations about imminent winds of change that promise to swirl about the Metropolitan Opera. During a conversation I had at work with one of my colleagues, he wondered what the MET would be like these days if the brilliant Swedish empressario and director Goeran Gentele had not died so tragically right as he was starting his tenure in New York City. This, together with the above photograph of Leonard Bernstein conducting a vocal rehearsal of Carmen in 1972, inspired the following post.

The Goeran Gentele Revolution ended abruptly when he was killed in an automobile accident in July of 1972. Mr. Gentele had assumed leadership of the Metropolitan Opera after Sir Rudolph Bing's retirement. He had only been at the helm of the opera house for a few short weeks. His brilliant production of Carmen with James McCracken and Marilyn Horne, conducted by Leonard Bernstein became his posthumous legacy to the Metropolitan Opera. It was an amazing, abstract re-thinking of Bizet's work (with monumental bare white walls and blinding light) that shifted the focus of the work to Don José, away from the title character and, in doing so, brought a sense of doom to a work that had grown stale with endless repetition. On the musical side, Mr. Bernstein's tempi were the slowest one ever associated with this work, resulting in a score that sounded noble and filled with doom, instead of a collection of well-known, often-played arias and ensembles. A recording of this production is available from Deutsche Grammophon.

The Schuyler Chapin, and Anthony Bliss tenures led to the Joseph Volpe Era. Personally, it is hard to imagine this Carmen production under the present leadership. In the years that Mr. Volpe has led the MET, his creative eye grew to be more expensive, while at the same time his vision shrunk down to become more conservative. The MET thrived financially for some years, but after the events of the eleventh of September empty seats became the norm. Somewhere along the line, the MET ceased to become the place to be when it came to innovation, and this is the sad legacy that Mr. Volpe leaves behind. The unkindest cut of all was that Mr. Gentele's work was replaced by Franco Zeffirelli's current production, which has all the intimacy of Ringling Brothers.

Goeran Gentele is known to have said that "Opera is an 18th and 19th century art that must find a 20th century audience." I certainly hope that Mr. Gelb shares this opinion, and that he is able to lead the MET into the 21st century.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Upcoming Peter Gelb Revolution

From the tone of today's article by Daniel J. Wakin in the New York Times, the upcoming tenure of Peter Gelb as General Manager at the Metropolitan Opera will feature new operas, new productions, new broadcasts, and everything you can imagine that could possibly be called new. Needless to say, it appears that Mr. Gelb feels that the Metropolitan Opera is wearing knickers and that it needs to be catapulted into modern times with daring productions, HD-TV broadcasts, and iPod downloads. While all of this, personally, sounds very exciting to me, I really don't know where he is going to get the money without totally pricing the MET out of the reach of the fans who are the backbone of the house. Further, although I would love to see at the MET more of the kind of daring productions that are now old hat in Europe (the new Ring better be Eurotrashy -- we've been due for about twenty years!) without major bucks from government subsidy it is not going to happen. And if the MET's new Ring happens to take place inside a Russian submarine, or fifty-three miles west of Venus, will the old-guard, accustomed to Günther Schneider-Siemssen's Teutonic peaks accept this kind of radicalism and continue to patronize this institution? Clearly there are changes in the horizon for the Metropolitan Opera, but if Peter Gelb can make this house once again relevant in the New York art scene, then he will have accomplished his job.

Here is Mr. Wakin's article from today's Times:

"As Audience Shrinks, the MET gets Daring" by Daniel J. Wakin

Revolution is afoot at the Metropolitan Opera, the world's largest opera house, which has been plagued in recent years by declining attendance and budget woes.

Peter Gelb, who takes over in August as the Met's first new general manager in 16 years, has laid out broad-ranging plans to remake the venerable house, sharply increasing the number of new productions, commissioning more and different kinds of new works, bringing in a wave of high-profile theater and film directors and striding into the world of digital transmission.

This attempt to reconceive the Met as an institution more open to popular influences and more attractive to a wider public may well alarm opera traditionalists, who are the heart of the Met's audience. It is also a response to the long reign of the current general manager, Joseph Volpe, who has worked at the Met for 42 years.

"I told the board at the time of my choice that I wanted to take this great institution that had grown somewhat isolated artistically and reconnect it to the world," Mr. Gelb said.

Mr. Gelb's program calls for a collaboration with Lincoln Center Theater that will engage Hollywood directors like Anthony Minghella and Broadway directors like George C. Wolfe, as well as musical figures like the theater composers Michael John LaChiusa and Adam Guettel and the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. Major conductors who have never appeared at the Met will make debuts, including Riccardo Muti, Daniel Barenboim and Esa-Pekka Salonen. The Met will install a gallery for works by contemporary painters, extending its reach into the visual arts. The artists include John Currin, Richard Prince and Sophie von Hellerman.

Mr. Gelb said he wanted to embrace new technology. Performances will be broadcast nationwide in high-definition movie theaters and made available through downloading, if agreements can be reached with the house's unions. CD's and DVD's could follow.

In a two-hour interview on Thursday, Mr. Gelb sketched out plans that could radically remake the house and influence opera houses around the world, given its size and influence. "My work at the Met is going to involve everything," he said, "even subtitles."

A former record company executive who produced Met telecasts in the late 1980's and early 90's, Mr. Gelb formally takes over on Aug. 1. But since January 2005 he has been working alongside the strong-willed Mr. Volpe.

Mr. Gelb, who is a son of Arthur Gelb, a former managing editor of The New York Times, said his plans were not meant as a criticism of the Volpe era. He noted that a sharp drop in opera attendance since 9/11 afflicted many institutions.

But he went on to say that the house had been "coasting" and that the old formula — counting on dedicated operagoers to fill the house for standard productions — no longer worked. He also took note of criticism that the Met has not attracted enough world-class conductors. Regarding singers, he said, it has "waited too long to jump on talent."

Mr. Volpe said his successor's approach might ruffle feathers. "Our audience loves standard opera done in a traditional way," he said. "But if it's very theatrical and well done they will be very happy with it. I think it's a good direction."

Mr. Volpe said he did not consider Mr. Gelb's plans a repudiation of his stewardship. "What I did, in my opinion, worked," he said. "If the new direction is successful, then you could say that the way the Met operated in the last decade should have been changed." If the audiences do not accept the new productions, he added, "then that's another result."

Martin Bernheimer, the New York-based music critic of The Financial Times, said Mr. Gelb appeared to be "desperately looking for a new audience and a new kind of opera."

"I think that's fine," he said. "But the question is, what will he do with the core audience while he's courting this new audience?"

Mr. Gelb said he wanted to create a "constant kind of excitement" by staging a new production every month, raising the average from four a year to seven. He will immediately scrap the tradition of an opening-night gala of big stars performing acts from several different operas.

"The idea that the Met has not opened a season with a new production in 20 years I find remarkable," he said. Hence, a new "Madama Butterfly," directed by Mr. Minghella and produced in cooperation with the English National Opera, will open the next Met season. It was a hit in London last fall.

Making such changes in the opera world, in which seasons are planned many years in advance, is unusual. But the Met had already scheduled an old "Butterfly" production for October, so that puzzle piece was replaced with a new one.

Mr. Gelb said that his goal with all the changes was to create bridges to a broader public. But the strategy also carries the risk of alienating traditional opera lovers and serious-minded critics. It remains questionable how congenial iTunes opera downloads would be to the typical Met attendee, whom the house has identified as a 62-year-old college graduate earning about $120,000.

Mr. Gelb acknowledged the need to keep traditionalists in the fold.

"My plans are not intended to frighten them," he said. "What I'm trying to do is to honor the aesthetic traditions of the Met while at the same time moving forward. If I were to function purely as a curator, then the Met would not continue to function and thrive."

The Met has cut its budget in midseason three years in a row, and in December it reported an expected box-office shortfall of $4.3 million. After selling more than 90 percent of its tickets in the 1990's, it is selling about 85 percent now, and a much larger proportion of them are discounted.

Mr. Gelb said he would change ticket prices next season to increase revenue. The highest-priced seats would rise from $320 to $375, and costs would go up for 60,000 seats out of the 857,000 total capacity next year. But the lowest ticket price would drop from $26 to $15, and 90,000 seats would decline in price.

The next three seasons have already been mostly planned, but Mr. Gelb said he had some influence, adding two new productions each season in 2007-8 and in 2008-9.

The first season fully planned by Mr. Gelb will be 2009-10. It will have seven new productions.

The season will open with a new "Tosca," possibly directed by George C. Wolfe, the former producer of the Public Theater. Karita Mattila will sing the title role for the first time. Angela Gheorghiu, a high soprano, will sing Carmen, a mezzo role. Matthew Bourne, a choreographer, and Richard Eyre will direct. The two collaborated on the musical "Mary Poppins," now playing in London.

The elusive Mr. Muti will make his Met debut with the early Verdi work "Attila," one of his signature operas. Mr. Salonen will conduct Janacek's "From the House of the Dead," directed by Patrice Chéreau. Renée Fleming will star in the early Rossini opera "Armida," directed by Mary Zimmerman. The next season, 2010-11, the Met will begin presenting a Wagner "Ring" cycle directed by Robert Lepage, a master of theatrical spectacle and technology who recently created the Cirque du Soleil extravaganza "KA" in Las Vegas. It will also present a commissioned work by the currently prominent Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov.

Notably absent from Mr. Gelb's outline of his plans was a discussion of the repertory's more challenging works, like Berg's "Wozzeck" and "Lulu," which are close to the heart of James Levine, the music director and longtime artistic soul of the Met. When asked, Mr. Gelb said both would continue to have short runs in coming years.

"We have to balance the season," he said. "And Jimmy insists on that, and he's right."

Mr. Levine said he fully supported Mr. Gelb's plans. "What I think he wants to do is produce a noticeable change right away," Mr. Levine said, "where he will have a way in front of him to evaluate what works."

But he cautioned that financing was not a given and the Met's plans depended on whether guest artists do in fact appear. He cited the fragility of voices during winter and the whims of conductors.

"If all those conductors to whom Peter spoke really come and do what they've agreed to do," Mr. Levine said, "that will be really exciting."

One of the biggest and perhaps most controversial departures is the collaboration with Lincoln Center Theater, which Mr. Gelb said was designed to produce operas with better dramatic flow from unexpected composers and to give them a chance for improvement before hitting the stage.

The Met and the theater have commissioned works from a range of composers and playwrights, some of them outside the classical tradition. The pieces will be workshopped and then guided toward either the Vivian Beaumont Theater or the Met stage. The Met is holding open a spot during the 2011-12 season for the first product of this collaboration. The artists include the team of Jeannine Tesori and Tony Kushner, as well as Rufus Wainwright, Scott Wheeler and Michael Torke.

Mr. Gelb said that if a revenue-sharing agreement with the house's unions could be reached, he hoped to start movie house broadcasts next year. The Met would begin with six Saturday performances in its radio broadcast season, relayed to theaters outfitted with high-definition systems, for about $20 a ticket. Two movie chains are interested, he said.

"The idea is to really conceive of it as an event," he said, "because that's what's exciting about opera."