At The Met, Staging a Revival for Grand Opera

December 7, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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With opera attendance down some 34 percent over the last six years, New York's storied Metropolitan Opera is asking how it can help keep a cherished art form not only alive, but thriving.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, reinventing the Met. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: Grand opera doesn’t get any grander than at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. It’s still the place with the greatest singers and the biggest spectacles, like the small army that filled the stage for a recent performance of “Aida.”

But, behind the scenes here, like everywhere else in the classical music world, is the looming question: how to keep opera not only alive, but thriving.

PETER GELB, general manager, The Metropolitan Opera: I’m not trying to pretend that opera is populist fare. It is not. It is high art. But opera as a high art form still should be accessible and understandable by the broadest possible intelligent audience.

JEFFREY BROWN: Three years ago, Peter Gelb became general manager of the Met with a mandate to revitalize a great institution that, in his words, was in danger of becoming artistically irrelevant. For Gelb, it was a homecoming of sorts.

PETER GELB: I was an usher when I was 16 years old.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, really?


JEFFREY BROWN: You have come a long way.

PETER GELB: Well not geographically.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gelb, a lifelong New Yorker, first made a name for himself in the classical music business as a manager, working with the likes of pianist Vladimir Horowitz. But running the Met is a whole other ball game. First, says Gelb, there are the die-hard fans.

PETER GELB: Opera fans are as fanatical as horse fans. It is just as exciting for an opera fan knowing whether or not Karita Mattila is going to hit her high note in “Vissi d’arte,” the famous aria in “Tosca,” as it is watching A-Rod coming up to bat with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what of everyone else? And where is the next generation of die-hards to come from? According to a new study by the National Endowment For the Arts, opera attendance in the U.S. overall is down some 34 percent just in the last six years. Gelb is trying to reach out and grab people on several fronts. Among other things, the season’s opening night was beamed live to Times Square. And, for weeknight performances now, orchestra seats are available for just $20 to the first 100 people in line, a nice savings for the young and others, who can’t afford the regular $80 to $275 price tag.

Biggest of all has been the series of live high-definition broadcasts beamed into more than 900 movie theaters around the world, drawing close to two million viewers last year. At the same time, Gelb is trying to revamp the Met’s repertoire, updating the productions of classic fare and commissioning new operas from today’s composers.

PETER GELB: There is no room for compromise. We have to move forward. For this art form to stay connected, to be successful, it has to be making progress all the time.


PETER GELB: Or it will recede, and it will lose its public, and — and people will lose interest in it.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s still, of course, great music and great singing that distinguishes opera and the Met. But one of its biggest stars, Renee Fleming, is well aware that her art form is fighting for survival in a very changed culture.

RENEE FLEMING, opera singer: It wasn’t that long ago that an upwardly mobile person in our society felt that the road to that was through culture and education.

JEFFREY BROWN: Including opera.

RENEE FLEMING: Exactly, music. People had pianos. “Oh, we have really achieved something. We own a piano.” That is gone. That is completely gone. So, we have to be creative about finding other ways to develop new audiences.

Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick plays the jealous princess, Amneris.

JEFFREY BROWN: Doing her part, Fleming has taken on a new role as host of the live opera transmissions. And she supports Gelb’s push for more theatricality.

RENEE FLEMING: Not too long before I started, it was really acceptable for people to just stand and sing…


RENEE FLEMING: … not make eye contact with each other, not really interact with each other, sometimes not even inhabit a character, but to be the grand diva portraying the character, one step removed.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that means some singers have to adjust or…

RENEE FLEMING: Oh, everyone’s had to adjust. BART SHER, Director: OK. Good, good, good, good. OK, good, good. Yes, good. Then we go into the drinking song, right? OK, so that’s — that — let’s — that’s enough, because it already weird enough as it is.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Met’s reaching out includes looking to new Hollywood and Broadway talent for fresh ideas, hiring directors like Bart Sher, who we caught up with on the first day of rehearsals for a new production of “Tales of Hoffmann.” Sher has had great success in the theater, but, until recently, little experience with opera.

BART SHER: When I’m in the middle of working on an opera, and there’s people singing to me in very strange rhythms in another language, and I’m actually trying to work out what they are doing, I always — I often say to myself, this is the weirdest art form I have ever been a part of.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right in the middle, with all that’s happening?

BART SHER: Just because I will stop and go, what is going on? This is so strange, because it is a very strange way to communicate an idea.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sher can’t read music and doesn’t know Italian, but his first production for the Met, the remake of a longtime favorite, Rossini’s “Barber of Seville,” was filled with comedic and theatrical touches, and became a big hit.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that was only after overcoming some obstacles, Sher says, like when he wanted to build a catwalk to bring singers closer to the audience.

BART SHER: There was a lot of resistance to that when we first proposed it. It was like, no…


BART SHER: Well, because the singers should never be below the conductor. Or, sometimes, I would work with a singer, and they would go, well, we always do this. This is tradition. And I would say, OK. Tell me the tradition. Inform me about what the tradition is. And then we would take the tradition. And, sometimes, I would go, well, that’s good. And, sometimes, I would go, oh, that is the stupidest thing I ever heard of. And let’s push it to somewhere else.

JEFFREY BROWN: Messing with “Barber of Seville” worked. Messing with “Tosca” to open this season was a different matter.

Peter Gelb decided a longstanding and much-loved production of the opera needed an edgier approach. A new stark set, replacing the old opulent Roman scenery, drew some noticeable booing.

PETER GELB: And that has elicited more letters, personal letters, e-mail and letters I have ever received than any other production, ranging from angry patrons who say, listen, buster, you better there was one addressed to me that way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Listen, buster?

PETER GELB: Listen, buster.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are messing with my “Tosca”?

PETER GELB: Don’t mess with my “Tosca” — to others, who tell me that they are thrilled that the Met is actually leaving the 19th century behind and entering the 21st century, in a very short time span.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, the controversy brought headlines, not necessarily a bad thing for an institution aiming to reassert itself… to give grand opera a grand place in contemporary culture. The trick now, without the booing, is to stay there.