Saturday afternoon at the mall:
Peter Gelb’s brave new world of opera
When Peter Gelb became general manager of the Metropolitan Opera last August, the opera world buzzed with questions and prognostications.
Gelb’s predecessor, Joseph Volpe, spent virtually his entire professional life at the Met, beginning as an apprentice carpenter and working his way to the top where he remained for 16 years. As such Volpe was an insider— in experience, that is, not background. Indeed, several of the bluebloods in management and on the board never got over the ascent of this scrappy, blunt onetime blue-collar worker. During Volpe’s reign the Met made progress in several areas—more international touring, four world premieres, improved labor relations, greater flexibility in dealing with ticket buyers’ wishes and— perhaps most important— the implementation of “Met Titles,” unobtrusive screens placed on the back of each seat, which provide translations of the librettos. But Volpe didn’t shake up the Met. It remained its own elitist self.
Gelb too could claim previous connections with the Met: first as a teenager when he was an usher, and later when he served as executive producer of its TV series. But Gelb also possessed many outside credentials: He had been a filmographer, artists’ manager, an Emmy- and Peabody-winning director/producer, and president of a classical record label. He had brought the pianist Vladimir Horowitz out of retirement to present a wildly successful recital in Soviet Russia, which was broadcast worldwide on TV. He had snagged the soundtrack of the blockbuster film Titanic for Sony Classical.
But when he added other movie soundtrack composers to Sony’s stable, Gelb was criticized for exhibiting questionable judgment. The word “crossover” was affixed to him, often with a negative connotation. Remember Charlotte Church, that 11-year-old soprano who wowed TV audiences with her ultra-pure rendition of Pie Jesu and then moved to the greener pastures of pop music? Gelb brought her into Sony Classical, too. So when he took charge at the Met, critics started joking that he’d soon have Charlotte singing the role of Lucia di Lammermoor.
An ambitious agenda (Muti included)
Gelb didn’t keep us waiting long in laying out his agenda for the Met. He said he’d increase the number of new productions, reaching seven in 2009-10, the first season totally under his control. He would present the biggest stars in more operas and commission new works from a wide-ranging group of composers and playwrights. He’d engage conductors never before seen at the Met’s podium, including Riccardo Muti, whose absence there to date has puzzled and disappointed many opera lovers.
The 2006-07 season, Gelb announced, would open not with the usual medley of excerpts from different operas but with a stylized new production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, conceived for English National Opera by Anthony Minghella, a movie director. The dress rehearsal of that opera would be open to the public at no charge. And on opening night, people could walk to Times Square and watch it on giant TV screens; 650 cushioned seats would be provided.
A mob in jeans and T-shirts
Three thousand ecstatic opera lovers (some of whom had stood outside in line all night) swarmed into the Met for the free dress rehearsal and received chits for free lunches, along with an invitation to stroll across the revered Met stage. On opening night, while the VIP crowd strolled to the Met on a red carpet, a huge audience in jeans and T-shirts gathered beneath the flickering lights of Times Square, their obvious enthusiasm undeterred by the honking horns and an errant cement mixer that drove noisily under the screen.
That was just the beginning. Gelb reduced the Met’s lowest-price tickets and raised the highest-priced tickets, thus opening the door to people who previously couldn’t afford to attend Met operas without affecting the Met’s overall revenues. He contracted with Sirius Satellite Radio to carry live and archival Met performances along with other vocal music 24 hours a day, every day of the year. No more would the Met be “isolated artistically” or “coasting,” words Gelb used publicly to describe that venerable institution.
Of all places, Neshaminy Mall
Just how far Gelb was willing to go to reach new audiences was demonstrated on December 30th, when his sprightly new Met came, of all places, to the AMC Theater at Neshaminy Mall and the Regal Warrington Crossing. Gelb had conceived yet another headline-generating operatic happening. Six of the Met’s new productions, he announced, would be seen and heard live over the course of the season at designated high-definition movie houses around the U.S. and abroad. Tickets would cost $18 for adults, $15 for children.
So there we were at Neshaminy: 200 opera lovers, moviegoers and just plain curious folks, at a sold-out house, munching on popcorn, sipping coffee and awaiting the 1:30 pm curtain of an abridged English-language version of Mozart’s last opera, The Magic Flute. We would see the wildly popular 2004 production by Julie Taymor (of The Lion King fame). In our casual Saturday-afternoon clothes, we— like thousands of moviegoers elsewhere— made up a very different audience from the glamorous crowd at the 3800-seat Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
A few technical glitches
The opera fanatics among us had arrived with hopes and doubts as to how successful the experiment would be. A look at the audience provided one unfortunate fact: most of us were in our 40s, 50s and 60s. There was just a scattering younger adults, and perhaps only a dozen kids in all.
The film’s initial moments were off-putting. First we saw Peter Gelb outside the Met, his mouth moving but without sound. That image gave way to vertical color stripes, then squiggly lines, followed by a blank screen. The audience applauded in mock enjoyment. When an usher appeared out front and tried to explain why the glitches had occurred, her voice was drowned out by the talk. And then suddenly the technical problems ceased, not to return (except for some unevenness in the sound quality).
It was admittedly a strange experience. There we were, enclosed in a darkened movie house, watching the crystal chandeliers being lowered at the Met and staring at the live audience, which couldn’t see us. It was almost voyeuristic. When the applause began, we didn’t know whether or not to join in. Wouldn’t it be rather ungenerous to sit with our hands folded? Or is it ridiculous to applaud a screen when the singer can’t hear you?
Close-ups: Better than the real thing
In purely visual terms, this Magic Flute was mesmerizing, with its dazzling mix of glorious melody, lowbrow humor, and Masonic, Buddhist, Indonesian and Kabala-like symbolism. Twelve cameras focused on the set and the singers in their wonderfully outlandish attire, tattooed bodies and intricate hair styles, while puppet bears, flamingos and birds fluttered overhead. We saw Nathan Gunn’s ever-changing and delightful facial expressions as the bird catcher, Papageno. We caught various singers taking their cues from the prompter. We marveled at Erika Miklosa, who sang the murderously difficult role of the Queen of the Night, attired in huge moth wings that fluttered behind her. As she tackled the coloratura flights and high Fs of her first aria, her diaphragm bounced in and out—a lesson in the physiology of singing. We even caught the almost invisible stage crew, dressed all in black as they rearranged the sets.
Close-ups of the singers, all fine actors, enhanced the overall impact. Ying Huang as the heroine, Pamina, was endearing in her innocence, Rene Pape as Sarastro solemn and dignified. In terms of the singing, the cast could hardly have sounded stronger. That sound didn’t quite resemble a real live performance where voices fill the hall in all their luster, but a lot better than most home systems.
True, some entire scenes as well as verses of arias had been eliminated, along with much of the spoken dialogue. But the non-purists among us weren’t bothered. After all, this version was intended as a means to develop new audiences, not scare them off, and 105 minutes is quite sufficient for that purpose.
Answers to my questions
I’d come to the Neshaminy Mall Theater with many questions:
—Is this a valid and exciting way to experience opera? For me, it was.
—Would I attend future operas in this cinematic version? Unquestionably— especially since the next one, Bellini’s I puritani, is closer to my home (at the Riverview on Columbus Boulevard).
— Will I be less likely to attend live Met performances of operas I’ve experienced this way? Probably—I’d rather save my money for productions not available in this medium.
Is this form similar to a live performance? Yes and no. You gain greatly on the visual side but not on the musical.
Is this an exciting way to experience opera? Absolutely.
Gelb’s goal, of course, is to coax audiences into the house, preferably young ones. Once they get there, he’s convinced they will love it. After all, opera is a total experience—voice, orchestra, dance, theater, stage. When it takes you into its spell you become one with it along with the rest of the audience. At the end you are exhausted, uplifted, disbelieving at what mere humans can create. And few houses deliver that experience as well as the Met does.
A real gauge of Peter Gelb’s influence at the Met will be some time in coming. But he has made a wonderful start.
Schedule of future performance at selected movie theaters: I puritani, by Bellini, on January 6; The First Emperor, by Tan Dun, January 13, Eugen Onegin, by Tchaikovsky, February 24, The Barber of Seville, by Rossini, March 24, Il trittico by Puccini on April 28. In addition, all of these operas will be shown on PBS.♦♦
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