Should Opera Companies Feature More Ballet?

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In my twenties I liked ballet as much as I did opera. There were great stars such as Natalia Makarova and Rudolf Nureyev, every bit as exciting as Sutherland and Pavarotti.

The stories told in ballet appealed to a young person and the music was infectiously rhythmic. I spent a lot of time in London in my student years and went to whatever what was on at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, whether it was the Royal Opera or the Royal Ballet. The latter had great stars (Margot Fonteyn, Merle Park, Anthony Dowell) and choreographers including Antony Tudor, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth Macmillan. There was a buzz of excitement at Covent Garden and as I sat in the slips (the cheap seats with restricted views), I was bitten by the ballet bug.

And yet, ballet soon began to show its limitations for me when compared with opera. No one made beautiful sounds in the storytelling. The miming of emotions became tedious when they could have been sung with full-throated passion. The rhythmic music began to sound repetitive and dull, lacking the complexity of opera. The scenery, costumes, lighting and other technical components seldom compared to what opera could offer. And the more opera I saw, the more I realized that it was my true love.

Talent and Dysfunction

From the ages of 25 to 31, I was Performance Manager at the Met. At that time, the opera company performed until mid-May and then went on a national tour. All my pals left and I had to stay behind to be the custodian of the opera house during what was called Presentation Season and deal with visiting companies, most of them dance troupes.

First and foremost was American Ballet Theater (ABT), a talented and troubled bunch with many outstanding performers (my favorite was the sexy and vibrant Cynthia Gregory) and often dysfunctional management. Dancers such as Gelsey Kirkland, Patrick Bissell and Alexander Godunov all were charismatic and gifted, but seemed to have black clouds above their heads. Mikhail Baryshnikov was super-talented but not the most endearing artist I have ever come across.

After ABT’s run ended, other companies arrived from around the world, most of which were resident in major opera houses, including the Royal Ballet; the Kirov from Leningrad (now the Mariinsky of St. Petersburg); the Bolshoi from Moscow; the Paris Opera Ballet with its glamorous stars known as etoiles and others. There were also companies that did folk or modern dance (the Moiseyev from the USSR; the Dance Theater of Harlem, etc.). All of these troupes were more vibrant than ABT even if our home company had highly talented artists. Across the plaza, at the New York State Theater, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins were creating one splendid dance program after another for the New York City Ballet (pictured, right).

This pirouette down memory lane was occasioned by attending two performances of the Mariinsky Ballet this past week during their visit to the Met as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Valery Gergiev was there to lead a full-length ballet based on Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” with a score by Rodion Shchedrin (born 1932) whose music brings to mind Prokofiev and, especially, Shostakovich. I liked his spiky use of percussion and modernist idiom. The set and costumes are by Mikael Melbye, a Danish Renaissance Man who began his artistic life as a baritone (listen to him with Margaret Price in a duet from Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte). He eventually stopped singing and became a prominent stage director, designer and portraitist in painting and sculpture).

The second Mariinsky program appealed to the opera lover in me as all the music was by Bizet. First came “Carmen Suite,” adapted by Shchedrin in the 1960s using only strings and percussion and sounding like Carmen as performed in a James Bond film. It was of its time and worked brilliantly. The Mariinsky brought a simple production design suggesting a bullring and dancers costumed to look as if they had sprung from the deck of cards Carmen consults to learn her destiny.

Then came George Balanchine’s unforgettable “Symphony in C,” using music written by a seventeen-year old Bizet. What floored me about the Mariinsky troupe’s soloists and, especially, the corps de ballet, is that they were technically precise and yet danced with an amazing sense of freedom. They were staggeringly good. I had forgotten that ballet can make me feel this way, though it will never come close to doing for me what opera does.

Watching the Mariinsky made me realize that many of the world’s great opera companies have ballet companies whose artistic profiles and followings are as high or even higher than the opera troupes. When you look at the season calendars of companies like London, Paris, Copenhagen, Vienna, St. Petersburg and Moscow, ballet evenings are regular features that attract huge audiences. They also make money for the theaters because dance is cheaper to produce. In its 2010-2011 season, for example, the Opéra de Paris had 19 opera productions and 12 dance programs.

Whither The Met’s Ballet Tradition?

All of this made me think of the Metropolitan Opera. I believe that it still offers more high-quality opera performances each year than any other company. Its marvelous orchestra, under James Levine, has carved out an additional identity as one of the best ensembles for playing symphonic music at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. But has anyone in recent memory even mentioned the Metropolitan Opera Ballet? Is there such a thing, or are they just the corps de ballet who show up in Aïda, La Traviata, La Gioconda, Eugene Onegin and other standard repertory works that have dance sequences?

Dance is important in many operas, especially those created for the Paris Opera in the 19th century when it was customary for every opera to have a ballet sequence. The Met used to stage many of these works, including Mignon, Robert Le Diable, Le Prophete, Les Huguenots, Le Cid and more. Operas with ballets created for Paris that appear at the Met more regularly include Don Carlo, I Vespri Siciliani, Carmen, Faust, Les Troyens, Samson et Dalila and Tannhauser, whose sexy and controversial ballet at the start of the opera made Wagner rather unpopular in Paris.

A search in the Met archive revealed that the company used to do a lot more dance. A particular feature were divertissements, one-act ballet programs that followed shorter operas but were not related to them. The first I found was a Fidelio followed by a ballet in 1888. Other operas through the years at the Met that were followed by a ballet include Aïda, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Bohéme, Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci, La Fanciulla del West, Hansel und Gretel, Madama Butterfly, Rigoletto, La Sonnambula, Tosca, and Il Trovatore. The last one was in 1956, a ballet called “Soirée” that came after Don Pasquale.

Luisa Tetrazzini’s debut as Lucia di Lammermoor in 1911 was followed by a program called “Imperial Russian Ballet.” In the same year was an all-dance evening called the Anna Pavolva Farewell Gala that included the great ballerina and other dancers in a series of famous and lesser-known excerpts from many full-length ballets. The only other ballet evening in the opera house I discovered was on March 22, 1959, that included the Met dancers performing to Barber, Poulenc and Richard Strauss, whose Four Last Songs were sung by Eleanor Steber and danced by four soloists. In the 1960s the Met dancers did programs elsewhere in the city, including Town Hall, the Fashion Institute of Technology and Lewisohn Stadium.

Since the early 1980s, the dancers in the Met’s corps de ballet (it is hard to call them the Metropolitan Opera Ballet as one would for the companies in Paris or St. Petersburg) have had a very low profile. No international tours, no etoiles, no sense of occasion when they show up. I do think that Met General Manager Peter Gelb has made an effort to improve the choreography in existing productions (Aïda, for example, is much better) but that’s it.

A Proposal to Peter Gelb

I notice that the Met under Gelb has more “dark nights," those evenings during the season when nothing is on the stage. Some of these might be used for rehearsals or just to give the company a breather. But I think a few dark nights could be made available for dance performances by the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, as I want to call them. The cost of staging these is much lower and anything earned is more than the Met would have by remaining dark.

Perhaps the first program, which can be done on occasional dark nights throughout a season, might be called “Opera at the Ballet.” This could be a double or triple bill based on stories from opera. The Mariinsky Carmen would be great to start the evening. There exists a ballet version of La Sonnambula from which all or part could be done. Then, why not engage a choreographer or two to create new opera-inspired ballets to complete the program?

Two suggestions that might work are Pagliacci and Gianni Schicchi. The former has a theatrical sequence at the climax that would work well as dance. The latter would need to be trimmed and focused, but there is a lot of room for humor and Puccini’s lush melodies would carry the day. I would love to hear your suggestions for operas that might make a nice ballet of thirty to forty minutes rather than a full evening.

The Metropolitan Opera Ballet could create one new mixed program of classical and contemporary dance every season to perform on a half-dozen dark nights. They do not have to be opera-related but would give the dancers a chance to flex different muscles just as the orchestra musicians do in their symphonic concerts. They could keep building and improving, just as the orchestra and chorus have. 

Perhaps they could do short American tours after the opera season, along with the orchestra and a singer or two. This would not be as costly as touring with whole opera productions (the Met’s annual U.S. spring tour ended in 1986) and would extend the company’s reach and influence in the way only live performances (as opposed to HD and radio broadcasts) can. And maybe one day, years from now, the Metropolitan Opera Ballet will be invited to dance in London, Paris, Copenhagen or St. Petersburg? It is something worth aspiring to.


Members of the New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's "Episodes."

Aida at the Metropolitan Opera: Credit: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera