'I Thought This Was an Opera Shop'

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A few weeks ago, with some time to kill before a performance, I went into the Metropolitan Opera Shop (a shop where, in the interest of full disclosure, I once worked during college) in search of a rarity: an opera recording that was not available on iTunes. While leafing fruitlessly through the sparse racks of discs, overheard another customer complain to an employee about their dwindling stock of recordings. Before storming out, she said, "I thought this was an opera shop."

Since transferring hands from the Metropolitan Opera Guild to the Metropolitan Opera Company proper, the shop has undergone a sleek transformation, all lacquered white shelves, archival costumes on display and hand-made Venetian leather purses. It's all impossibly chic and beautifully minimalist, but such a face lift also cost the Met shop one of its greatest assets: its arsenal of CDs.

To be fair, under Peter Gelb, the Met has also heavily increased its own commercial audio and video output, thanks to the Met in HD on Deutsche Grammophon and historic recordings on Sony. And these items are all readily available, often strategically placed at the front of the store and in a rotation to coincide with the afternoon's or evening's operatic offerings. Gone, however, are the floor-to-ceiling shelves of recordings so rare it's a wonder they ever made it to CD.

"The Opera Shop features a wide selection of opera CDs and DVDs, with a special emphasis on Met recordings and the operas featured on the Met stage during the season," the Metropolitan Opera said in a statement. Yet gone, even, are some of the rarer works in a Met season towards the end of the work's run. Growing up and going to the opera regularly with my mother meant stopping at the gift shop on our way out to buy a recording of whatever we just saw, a means of thematically replacing our LPs and cassette tapes and also a way to continue our post-Puccini, Verdi or Borodin buzz. It's an operatic hair of the dog, and it's what keeps many people still buying a $29.99 CD in an opera shop rather than waiting to go home and download it off iTunes for $9.99.

Admittedly, I didn't feel the pinch so much until the last few months, facing an empty shell of the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble (now plastered with cherry-red "Coming Soon" posters for discount department store Century 21). During the heyday of Tower Records, with its classical wing and dedicated opera room (yes, room), in fact, I often eschewed the Met Shop altogether for the better deals a few blocks north. Apparently, so did everyone else as you could often spot a star like Susan Graham or Emmanuel Ax in the endless rows of recordings as well.

It was in the Lincoln Center Tower that I found the Marilyn Horne recording of Mignon, long out of print and unavailable on Amazon.com; it was also where I got a first listen in 2003 of a young Russian soprano named Anna Netrebko. The sales people there could tell you exactly how many recordings were done of the baritone version of Werther, and show you what they had in stock. Even across the street at Barnes and Noble, with a comparably smaller offering of classical discs, there were a few staffers who constantly offered sterling opinions on matters like Behrens versus Nilsson when it came to Salome.

That's not to say that the Met Opera Shop staff doesn't know their stuff. Given that most of them are trained musicians, they actually know it better than most and are adept at tailoring suggestions to the tastes of the individual customer. No one there will hold it against you if you're in the market for a Tosca recording but don't care for Pavarotti; but if those are your tastes you'll be hard pressed nowadays to find many alternatives.

In the same aforementioned statement, the Met indicates that they have instituted a service called "Shop More Music," which is designed to help "fans track down rare and hard-to-find recordings (and ones that are not stocked due the Opera Shop’s space limitations)." The statement added that "distributors have allowed many titles to go out of print" but the shop will assist customers in "curating their own opera and classical music collections."

A phone call to the shop indicated that the curator of "Shop More Music" no longer works there and that the stated 48-hour response rate to online requests may take longer due to the extreme demand of customers and limited time for in-store employees to respond. Without any other resort, customers are often told to try Amazon or iTunes, but as statistics show, the average Metropolitan Opera customer (with a median age hovering in the late 50s and early 60s) is not in line with the average iTunes customer (statistics on this are harder to verify, but as of last year the average age of iPod touch users was 23; iPhone users hover at around 37). WQXR recently polled listeners to ask how they most often bought their music, and a resounding 78.24% opted for CDs, versus a 12.96% camp for digital downloads. And in a more real-world setting, the same woman who stormed out of the Met Shop, when offered the option of iTunes, asked where that store was located. This is not an uncommon reaction.

And ultimately, the new face of the Met Shop begs several questions: How many Carmen-inspired Richard Tsao jackets will the average Met customer buy? And can the profits off of those, or even a more modestly-priced Met T-Shirt, replace the potential income to be had from selling a wider selection of CDs? When the Met was facing competition from two major retailers in the neighborhood, sure, it made sense to cater to the more unique finds (of which I happily own a few), but now with even the Borders at Columbus Circle facing an uncertain future, this shop is slowly becoming the only game in town. And although the Met is also producing its own content, even some of those DVDs are not sold in the shop (recent releases of Turandot and Aida are currently available at Target, but not on the Met's website). In the meantime, there are still indie outposts like Academy Records on 18th Street and Westsider Records on W 72nd. A pity neither of them is open for those heady post-performance purchases (or Lincoln Center adjacent).

Should the Met stock more recordings in an effort to amp up a dwindling supply of retailers in the city? Where do you purchase your music? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Photos, top to bottom: A small number of CDs remain in the rear of the Met Shop; Century 21 prepares to take over the former Barnes and Noble space; shoppers at Academy Records (photos by Kim Clancy)