Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Met as a Risk Taker?

Anthony Tommasini wrote an article about risk-taking at the Met, and Drew McManus followed up with a good analysis of both that article and the Met's situation. But there are some issues neither of them addresses at all that are relevant to the issue of the Met as an artistic leader and risk-taker.

They are both aware of these issues, but somehow these points don't emerge in the articles, other than that Tommasini does mention the misbegotten Lepage Ring in passing, a production that Peter Gelb has unsuccessfully tried to pass off as innovative and risk-taking. (To repeat why this isn't so: a unit-set production with terrible Personregie isn't innovative. It's dumb.) In any event, my major point is that I do not think the words "artistic risk" and "Met" can reasonably be used in relation to each other.

  • The Met has close to 4000 seats to fill, hence the tourist-friendly, everpresent Zefirelli Boheme and its ilk. 
  • The company operates in an expensive city with expensive union contracts.
  • Some of the big donors are conservative to a fault: note the Sibyl Harrington Foundation's lawsuit over the Dieter Dorn Tristan, which is spare but not in any way radical.
  • The Met's idea of "risk" is that Willy Decker Traviata that, again, is pretty conventional, or the Prince Igor that Tommasini discusses. Yes, the Igor is reimagined in an interesting way, and it is a rarity, but it is not musically risky, being full of beautiful tunes.
  • The Met has whole seasons where only two operas of 25 were written later than Turandot. This year, there are three: The Rake's Progress, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and The Death of Klinghoffer. Of these, only Klinghoffer represents much of a risk, and that is not because of its musical idiom.
There are giant swathes of repertory the Met rarely, or never, perform, such as new and recent operas not written by people named Glass, Adams, or Corigliano. (There are exceptions but you know what I mean.) New operas written by Europeans. Anything vaguely experimental, though the Muhly opera is at least trendy. The Met seems to regard Janacek as chancy, and they don't touch Dvorak other than Rusalka. In context, it is amazing that they're doing Iolanta this season, but it's Tchaikowsky.

The Met doesn't use truly radical stagings, except for the Robert Wilson Lohengrin and perhaps that new Parsifal. They've got Herheim's Meistersinger coming in some day, but it's the least radical of his stagings that I have read about. We can forget about Bieto or Neunfels or any of the other more thoughtful directors working primarily in Europe. Even the great Patrice Chereau took until 2009 to get a staging to the Met.

The Met is not a company that has ever shown much artistic leadership, and all you have to do is take a look at its repertory report to see the truth of this. Especially since 1945, it has had a terrible record of performing new and recent opera, and has done little to expand the repertory or commission new works. It's a behemoth whose productions always get a lot of attention. The company pays decently; its productions are reviewed and seen worldwide; it can get a singer a lot of good publicity. But an artistic leader or risk taker, the company is not and never has been.


Mary Jane Leach said...

I found the Kentridge production of The Nose inspiring, and look forward to his staging of Lulu in 2015, but that seems to be an exception.

La Cieca said...

Risk is a relative term. You do understand that when the Met does present even so relatively tame a production as the Decker Traviata (which even sells well) there are outcries of "What a shonda for Verdi! I only wish Licia were already dead so she wouldn't have to hear about this!"

So now the Met begins to take some (relatively mild) risks) and your reaction is not, "good, a move in the right direction, let's keep this up" but instead "too little, too late, you missed your chance, I'm done with you." Can you see why the Met might be a little risk-averse here, when the taking of risk means getting slammed from both directions at once?

Lisa Hirsch said...

La Cieca, I cannot tell whether you are directing those "you" remarks to me or to a general person. But here are my comments:

1. I am respoding to Tony and Drew's articles, first and foremost.

2. Yes, I'm well aware that the Met's audience - as well as some of its big donors - are very conservative. I think you know that perfectly well, plus it is implicit in "they need to sell a lot of tickets" and "that's why they've got productions like the Zef Traviata." And yes, they are caught between people who'd like to see more interesting stagings and a wider range of repertory, and the conservatives. Maybe the Met should try being explicit about the existence of these audiences, and have, say, subscriptions specifically oriented toward the different audiences. If the NYPO can sell out three performances of Le Grand Macabre, there is some hope that the Met could too.

3. I realize that your "too little, too late" etc. is exaggeration for effect, but I said nothing like "I'm done with you," nor did I imply such a thing.

Practically speaking, I live in California and get to NYC only every couple of years at most, for work or pleasure. If I lived close enough to be a Met regular, I'd pick and choose what I see based on the opera, cast, production, and conductor.

Dr.B said...

Dvorak wrote something besides Rusalka?

Lisa Hirsch said...


Henry Holland said...

Yes, I'm well aware that the Met's audience - as well as some of its big donors - are very conservative

It's not just the Met, it's New York audiences in general for all the arts. Compared to London, for just one example, it doesn't even rate: the Royal Opera House even takes more chances than the Met does (i.e. a production of Birtwistle's terrific The Minotaur that sold well enough to get a revival), ENO at least acknowledges that opera exists after 1925. There's five major orchestras in London, two of them (the LPO and the Philharmonia) being pretty adventurous in their programming.

The London theater scene is vastly more experimental than "Broadway" and less beholden to stuff like The Lion King, the visual arts are more wide-ranging too. London also has a vastly superior rock/pop music scene, New York doesn't even rate in comparison. Etc. etc. etc.

This year, there are three: The Rake's Progress, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and The Death of Klinghoffer

Let's see: an opera written in the late 1940's to sound like it could have been written in the 1800's (Britten: "I liked everything except the music"), a good Russian opera and an opera that you summed up perfectly, one that I found utterly dire when I heard it in Long Beach.

If the NYPO can sell out three performances of Le Grand Macabre, there is some hope that the Met could too

The problem being, of course, that the Met could sell out those three performances but the chances of it being revived are almost nil as that would likely encompass the audience that would be interested. I don't know the economics of just doing a production once, but it just makes the loss of the City Opera even more acute, at least they would do pieces outside of the Top 40 stuff.

If I lived close enough to be a Met regular, I'd pick and choose what I see based on the opera, cast, production, and conductor

Even if I lived at Broadway and 65th Street, I'd hardly ever go, given the stuff I like. At least I'd be 3000 miles closer to London and Europe though! :-)

Robert Berger said...

I still think the Met's repertoire is a lot more adventurous than most of the regiona; companies in the US , which pretty much stick to the same old same old .
It's great to have things there like The Nose, Lady Macbeth, War & Peace, Rusalka, Prince Igor, Attila, Hamlet, Doctor Atomic ,Rodelinda, Iphigenie en Tauride, Le Comtye Ory, Armida etc.