Friday, November 12, 2004

Damned in Advance

A. C. Douglas, relying on Norman Lebrecht, is already wringing his hands about the appointment of Peter Gelb as the next General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera.

This is more than a bit hasty, for a couple of reasons. To start with, there's ACD's anticipation of "another triumph for pop culture values and their insidious and pernicious infestation of all domains of high culture." A little reading in opera history reveals that it hasn't always been considered high culture. It remained a popular art form in Italy well into this century, and that's certainly what it was in the 19th c. (and not only in Italy). Doing research in the personal music collection of a British singer active from the teens through the 40s of the last century, I found quite a lot of sheet music whose covers were advertisements for the publisher. Ricordi's sheet music advertised hundreds of arrangements of excerpts from popular operas such as La Boheme, for all sorts of instrumental combinations. "Che gelida manina" for two mandolins, anyone? Ricordi was able to do this because that sheet music sold, and not necessarily to the guardians of high culture. It sold to people who wanted to play Puccini at home with their friends. (Of course, for all I know, ACD and Lebrecht don't consider Puccini to be high culture - but I bet Wagner's publishers did the same thing.)

And secondly - perhaps we can wait to see what happens with Peter Gelb before we don ashes and sackcloth. He'll have a year of tutelage under Joe Volpe, which will surely include fundraising, dealing with unions and artists and donors, and what to do with the enormous administrative machinery of the Met. Gelb will have James Levine and he'll be answerable to a Board of Directors. Then again, there's the sheer inertia of an institution like the Met. Productions are planned out and singers put under contract years in advance. Whatever radically popular and popularizing notions Lebrecht and ACD fear, they're not going to come about any time soon. So take a deep breath and relax. You may be pleasantly surprised by what Gelb does; if not, there's plenty of time to let him have it. Believe me, if we have Kathleen Battle singing Aida, if everyone is suddenly amplified, if we find a rock band in the pit, I'll be happy to join you. Until then, though, give it a rest and give the guy a chance.

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