Met Opera faces questions as it marks big anniversary
New York (AFP) – The Metropolitan Opera is pulling out the finery this weekend to mark its golden anniversary at New York’s Lincoln Center, but the celebration comes at a tough moment for opera in the United States.
A black-tie concert and gala dinner will feature performances from many of opera’s biggest stars, including legendary Spanish singer Placido Domingo and the popular American soprano Renee Fleming, as well as archived footage from Met performances of yore and a recent video testimonial from the iconic Leontyne Price.
The event comes near the end of another season of spectacle concerning tales of love, loss, fate and the fantastic, with booming soloists, museum-worthy sets and sure-handed performing by the Met’s respected chorus and orchestra.
While the Met’s musical prowess is not open to question, there is uncertainty hovering over the company as it struggles to find new subscribers to make up for older attendees who are dying off.
Met ticket sales covered 88 percent of capacity in 2008, but only 69 percent in 2015, according to financial reports. As ticket revenues have stagnated, donations from wealthy benefactors have assumed a greater share of expenses.
“It has some serious problems,” said Charles Affron, co-author of “Grand Opera: The Story of the Met,” who said the house is facing one of the toughest periods in its 134-year history.
“The audience has been dwindling and keeps dwindling,” he said.
Met General Manager Peter Gelb said overall audience in the 2016-2017 season that celebrates the opera’s 50 years “slightly” improved compared with last year, its first gain after several years of decline.
Gelb said ticket sales to first-time buyers have been strong, but acknowledged that attracting new audience remains a work in progress. He said a priority was greater outreach to schools, in part through use of content from the Met’s “Live in HD” program, which streams opera from the Met stage to cinemas worldwide.
“Opera is going through a transition — replacing an older audience with a younger one,” he told AFP. “The question is can we replace the old audience with the new one quickly enough?”
– Dramatic unveiling –
Sunday’s event will commemorate the Met’s move from Midtown Manhattan to Lincoln Center, a cultural plaza on the Upper West Side that is also home to the New York Philharmonic and New York City Ballet.
That opening, back in September 1966, was marked with appearances by first lady Lady Bird Johnson, Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos and other dignitaries who watched the world premiere of Leontyne Price in “Antony & Cleopatra” by American composer Samuel Barber.
Other names from opera’s golden era followed later that season, including Italian tenor Franco Corelli, Swedish powerhouse Birgit Nilsson and Australian soprano Joan Sutherland. Another great star, the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti, premiered at the Met in 1968 in “La Boheme.”
Besides the starry casts, the remade Met also became known for stellar acoustics and details such as its gold ceilings and majestic chandeliers. A pair of murals by artist Marc Chagall — one mostly red, the other mostly yellow — have also become synonymous with New York’s premier opera house.
But over time, the Met’s scale, an asset during the era of peak opera, has started to look more like a burden. With about 3,800 seats, it is far bigger than rival houses in cities such as London, Milan and Vienna.
Music historian Affron said new productions introduced under Gelb have been uneven and that the Met’s roster of singers is not as strong as in decades past.
“There’s just not enough people who will sell tickets,” he said.
But Affron is optimistic about the appointment of conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin as music director, set to take effect in 2020, a hope echoed by union leaders who came close to striking in 2014 before a deal was struck.
“The orchestra is thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Maestro Nezet-Seguin,” Jessica Phillips, who plays clarinet in the Met Orchestra, said in a statement on behalf of the American Federation of Musicians Local 802.
“While there are serious and important challenges, the Met continues to create extraordinary performances that meet the exceptional standards of our audience.”
– A different era –
Defenders of today’s singers note that many are better actors than their predecessors, some of whom sounded great but stood statue-like and made little attempt to realize characters facing catharsis, crisis and life and death.
Examples this season included the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who left audiences rapturous as the trusting, bookish Tatiana in “Eugene Onegin,” and the German baritone Michael Volle, who communicated a creepy, otherworldly possession as the title character in Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman.”
“Opera has to be so much more than it once was,” said Gelb, who said it was more difficult in the current era of ample distractions to connect to people who aren’t already watching.
“As an art form, opera is not positioned as it once was,” Gelb said. “In a slower moving time, opera was more in the mainstream.”