For over four decades, summer was marked in part by the Metropolitan Opera's free concerts of full-length repertory standards to New York City's parks. It was a chance to hear some top-flight casts for free, such as a 2002 production of La Bohème starring Mary Mills, Frank Lopardo, Mary Dunleavy and Paul Plishka, led by Julius Rudel, or a 2005 performance of Tosca starring Aprile Millo, Frnacisco Casanova and James Morris. Three years ago, however, Peter Gelb—citing financial constraints—replaced the full-length operas with evenings of aria recitals.
There was, of course, a considerable outcry. However, the Met has still managed to remain active during its summer vacations with concerts that have featured Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, Paulo Szot and Nathan Gunn, plus a starry constellation of Met up-and-comers. (New Yorkers, meanwhile, may feel an extra pinch this summer with the sad absence of the New York Philharmonic’s tour of the five boroughs, though they will present a free concert in Central Park this September with Andrea Bocelli.)
The last two years have capitalized on an operatic household name cast alongside singers who are rapidly ascending to similar levels of notability—2009 cast soprano Lisette Oropesa and tenor Alek Shrader opposite Szot, 2010 featured a cocktail of Susanna Phillips, Michael Fabiano and Gunn. A Met staffer accompanies on piano now in lieu of a full orchestra. And while Mozart, Rossini, Verdi and Bizet are still standard fare, albeit in reduced form, snippets from the American Songbook also make their way into programming.
With this year's concert series kicking off tonight at Central Park’s SummerStage, the Met takes another risk in casting three young artists who stand and sing on their own. Those who have made the argument that the Met has usurped New York City Opera’s tradition of giving rising opera stars their first breaks can look no further than tonight and tomorrow’s lineup of Angela Meade, Atalla Ayan (a last-minute replacement for Dimitri Pittas, who is ill but slated to sing on Wednesday) and Jennifer Johnson Cano for proof. The cast from July 19 through July 28 features soprano Layla Claire, mezzo Renée Tatum and bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green.
And perhaps, while these arrangements came from the unfortunate place of budget cuts and re-appropriation of funds, all of this may have worked out for the best. An evening of opera’s greatest hits means that the Met can curate a custom mix of music that represents their upcoming season, give neophytes a tasting menu before asking them to commit to a full meal and allows hardcore fans to enjoy a balmy summer evening full of the arias, duets and trios that sparked their initial loves of opera. It’s the operatic equivalent of having a light Italian ice versus a hearty German chocolate cake. And isn’t that what we tend to prefer during the warmer months?
Weigh in: Do you prefer the Met's summer concerts to be full-length operas or recitals? Let us know why below.