MAKING OPERA FRESH

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As the Metropolitan Opera celebrates its 125th anniversary, the company is working to appeal to contemporary audiences. Opera productions “are like shells that have to be shed,” explains Peter Gelb, the general manager ...

From ECONOMIST.COM

For the past few months, people who attended a concert at Lincoln Centre have had to meander through a sprawling construction site. The windswept plazas and some of the hulking grey 1960s buildings have been renovated. Even the main plaza’s famous fountain is receiving a high-tech makeover. Alice Tully Hall recently re-opened, with an airy new foyer and russet-hued auditorium.

Other changes at Lincoln Centre are less obvious but equally dramatic. New York City Opera (which is distinct from—scrappier, poorer and more innovative in its programming choices than—the Metropolitan Opera company) made headlines in 2007 by hiring Gerard Mortier as general manager; 18 months later he left, complaining the company’s budget was too small for his ambitions. He was replaced by George Steel, a young conductor whose only experience running an opera company was three months presiding over the Dallas Opera.

The giant Metropolitan Opera house, which looms over the back of the central plaza, is not being renovated. But since Peter Gelb became general manager in 2006 the organisation has certainly been modernised, with simulcasts of popular operas and film and theatre directors recruited to stage new productions.

I visit Mr Gelb to discuss his plans for the Met’s 125th anniversary gala. In his spacious office, tucked behind the cavernous theatre, he tells me that he wanted to create something that “would fly in the face of the traditional hackneyed gala”, where singers dutifully shuttle on and off stage with conveyor-belt monotony.

Metropolitan OperaMr Gelb decided that it would be more exciting to recreate scenes from historic Met productions. He was inspired in part by a photo that hangs in a Met conference room, showing Enrico Caruso standing on a tree stump with a noose around his neck before his big aria in the last act of Puccini’s “La Fanciulla Del West.”

Mr Gelb explains that one of his goals at the Met is to use modern theatrical techniques to make opera appealing to contemporary audiences. Opera productions “are like shells that have to be shed,” he says. “We have to do new things.”

Like most arts institutions, the Met has been thwacked by the economic crisis; it has lost one-third of its $300m endowment. Management has recently cut pay for singers and senior staff and axed several ambitious productions scheduled for next season. The famous Chagall murals that hang in the Met’s enormous windows and provide a picturesque backdrop for the main Lincoln Center plaza will be used as collateral for a long-term loan.

But this gala was planned before the economic turmoil, Mr Gelb notes, and much of the money was already committed. It caps a fundraising drive, and donors expect a showstopper.

The costumes, which are being made in a shop outside the Met, are expensive. Much of the scenery, however, is being recreated with projections and thus is relatively cheap. It’s all “smoke and mirrors,” laughs Mr. Gelb.

We chat about the problem of keeping the art form fresh, particularly when so many die-hard opera buffs are wedded to the past—obsessed with long-dead divas and averse to contemporary productions and composers.

“It’s great to have a sense of the past,” says Mr Gelb, “but we have to live in the present. My concern is to keep this art form moving forward, which is why I’m so interested in bringing in new directors.” If you’re a baseball fan, he adds, “you can sit and think about Babe Ruth all day long, but it’s more fun to experience what’s happening now.”

Picture credit: Met Opera Archives, Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

(This is a correspondent's diary published on Economist.com.)