When I was seven and able to ride a public bus to school on my own, I was given an allowance of 25 cents every day. That quarter allowed me to either choose to walk approximately a mile each way or ride a public bus for 8 cents each way, so that, if I chose to walk, I had a whole 25 cents, if I took the bus both ways I still had 9 cents left for a mid-afternoon snack to be enjoyed after school. Bear in mind this was the 1950’s Cuba.
On weekends my allowance would go up to one peso that my father gave me on Saturday mornings. I could go to the movies for 50 cents and have plenty left over for one large pop corn, a milky way, two cokes and the round trip bus fare, and many years later, when I developed a taste for the off-beat, take in a play in one of Havana’s several pocket-theatres or a concert in the Auditorium’s second balcony with only one peso. I then opened a savings account but I couldn’t bring more than $5 with me when I left Cuba. Once settled in my new homeland, I got my first job as a janitor on a night-shift, and continued to hone my cash management skills on a $20-a-week salary.
May years later, in the late 1980’s, when my wife and I co-founded a theater, I once more had to refine my budgeting skills, doing the perilous balancing act familiar to so many colleagues in arts management, so as to survive one more year, one more NEA budget cut, one more play tanking after another selling out. All of which brings me round to the subject of The Metropolitan Opera’s Finances and Artistic Planning, and the pressing question of who has been minding the store at the Met?
The annual costs of mounting and running an opera season are staggering and those costs are never off-set by ticket sales. They have never been, since the San Cassiano Opera House opened in Venice in 1637, nor will they ever be. Contributed income has to make up the difference, and donations are subject to the vagaries of the economy: up one year, down the next.
The Met management is now under scrutiny and will hopefully learn to watch its dollars and cents. No more Ring disasters, please! Hold on to the Otto Schenck production a little longer or come up with a new production concept that does not call for a cumbersome, noisy, twenty-million-dollar “machine” that frequently and noisefully ends up malfunctioning and up-staging the hapless singers.
Has anybody thought of asking Peter Gelb to voluntarily or with a little nudge cut back his salary? Is anybody in the department that oversees the costs of physical production authoritative enough to either green-light or nix the mindless spending that goes on with some of the productions the Met has been trotting out? Will there be yet another Prince Igor field of satin poppies costing thousands of dollars?
Memory can be faulty, but whatever of it I have left has a special place for the glory days of the Met during my years in New York, where the late John Dexter was one sharp prong of the Bliss-Levine-Dexter triumvirate that brought to the company’s Lincoln Center stage some of the most memorable productions of my fifty-plus years of opera going.
There was the Dexter/Svoboda Les vêpres siciliennes…the Marilyn Horne/James McCracken Le prophète…Britten’s Billy Budd with Peter Pears… And there was, week after week James Levine at the podium, great art on stage and common sense and solid management behind the scenes.
The Met has gone placid and flaccid with an artistic planning department that often causes one to say out loud: “What were they thinking?” Production values have plummeted, often ranging from questionable to wrong-headed to just plain tacky. There’s the recent Eugene Onegin with its plethora of columns in the middle of a ballroom. There’s the capriciously updated Don Pasquale set in Naples. There’s the downright-weird Traviata, with the gigantic clock and the all-male chorus. There’s the tasteless Tosca, chock-full of sexually-explicit scenes that sent patrons fuming up the aisles and out the lobby doors of the Met. All of these wrong-headed exercises in futility have replaced older but better and beloved productions.
The setting of a Rigoletto in the Vegas of the rat-pack 1960’s or Falstaff set in 1950’s England or Manon Lescaut plopped down in Nazi-occupied France brings these classics no closer to the sensibilities of a contemporary and younger audience than productions done in the period and place meant by the librettist and the composer. The Met continues to disappoint its aging audience with its concept productions while it fails to capture any of the potential new audience that opera needs in order to survive in the 21st century.
When Stanislavsky and Gordon Craig and Meyerhold and Vahtangov and Jacques Copeau and all the other great pioneers of 20th century theatre did their revolutionary work, they came at it equipped with formidable knowledge of dramatic literature and the visual arts. They were, each and every one of them, great artists and insightful intellectuals, both director-designers and dramaturges, whether working side by side with living playwrights or on their own, with the spirits of Shakespeare and Lope and Sophocles and Moliere hovering about.
Those modern theatre pioneers directed theatre, opera and operetta with the same curatorial fastidiousness that is sorely lacking in the work of many if not most of today’s directors, whose productions more often than not suffer from directorial laziness and dramaturgical cluelessness.
Many of the productions the Metropolitan Opera has been trotting out in recent years fail to tap into textual clues provided by the libretto and dramatic clues provided by the composer. I have yet to see a new production at the Peter Gelb Met that can remotely compare to the finest work of Patrice Chéreau, Franco Zeffirelli, Giorgio Strehler, Ingmar Bergman or Lucchino Visconti. Where are all the world class regisseurs today?
An injection of fresh creativity informed by solid taste and sound management skills is desperately needed for the Met to survive and thrive. Nobody wants to confront the doomsday possibility of the Metropolitan Opera imploding artistically and financially and ceasing operations.