Coffee with Dominique Meyer

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On February 26, I had the opportunity to have a cup of coffee with Dominique Meyer, the director of the Vienna State Opera. He was in New York on a fast visit for the start of the "Vienna: City of Dreams" Festival at Carnegie Hall. Meyer flew back to Vienna hours after we met to be present for the annual Opera Ball on February 27. One of the most important happenings on the city’s social calendar, the Opera Ball takes place on the last Thursday of the Fasching (Carnival) season.

Meyer and I met at an event where breakfast food was available. He was born in Alsace in 1955, which means he easily straddles French and German language and culture. But, when it came to partaking of breakfast, he professed to be more French. “Where I am from, we eat pork and sausages later in the day.” An iconic dish in the Alsatian kitchen is choucroute garni, a heap of semi-sweet sauerkraut topped with various cuts of pork, to be consumed with Riesling wine. “In the morning, no meat. Just coffee.”

Most of Meyer’s career was in his native France, including running the Paris Opera. Although he has only headed the Vienna State Opera since 2010, Meyer is steeped in that company’s history and traditions. He does not hesitate to talk about the difficult parts of the State Opera’s past (including religious prejudice against Mahler and other artists; conflicts between conductors and public opinion; insistence on doing all operas in German), but also believes that being an heir to, and custodian of, this cultural treasure means building it in contemporary ways without scuttling what was best about the past.

I am often surprised—and disillusioned—when I meet heads of opera companies who are  not conversant in the art form and, for that matter, don’t show a genuine love for it.  Too often, I have asked the chief executive of a company (especially in North America but also parts of Europe) a very simple question that includes a reference to repertory, singers or opera in general, only to find a nervous “deer-in-the-headlights” expression on his or her face. These are not esoteric or complicated queries meant to entrap or make them feel awkward, but things anyone who really cares about opera would know.

I mention this because I found Meyer deeply knowledgeable and engaged, quite at home with serious talk and analysis. There was not a whiff of the promotional behavior (and the insecure self-aggrandizement that typically attends it) one finds with someone bent on selling you something rather than exploring ideas. 

Meyer said to me, “I think some general managers appear too much in the public eye and want high profiles. We have to stay behind the scenes and put the artists in front of the lights.” He believes in active roles for artists of former generations, including frequent conversations with them before audiences. I have attended some of these events. They are not walks down Memory Lane, but are a renewal--and the handing down--of traditions to contemporary audiences and artists.

Meyer discussed an initiative about which he is clearly passionate: the live streaming online of performances from the stage of the Vienna State Opera, which presents about 300 performances per season of 50 operas and 10 ballets each season. The theater capacity is smallish (2284 persons, of which 567 are standees) and is almost always sold out with local people and visiting opera fans.  Vienna does fewer performances of each opera than do New York, London or Paris. This means that transmissions do not compete with ticket sales, as happens in larger theaters such as the Met. While the State Opera occasionally transmits performances live on a screen outside the opera house, for Meyer streaming to homes is more important than broadcasting in public places. “I want that people can watch opera in their pajamas,” he said.

While other companies (including Aix-en-Provence, Brussels, Glyndebourne, Munich) do live streaming and some companies (the Met, the Royal Opera, La Scala) do HD transmissions, Meyer says he wants to make streaming of opera more innovative yet faithful to the experience of attending a live performance. 

His real goal, and what sets this streaming apart from HD broadcasts, is that the viewer at home can have more control of the experience than someone attending in a movie theater. To this end, he will give the viewer the choice of watching a performance captured live from more than one camera or viewing it from one fixed camera, much as one would with one’s eyes while seated in the auditorium. With the latest technology, the “fixed camera” viewer can pull back for more perspective or zero in on what he wants to observe (rather than what an HD director might select). I find this quite exciting because it more closely approximates operagoing and makes the viewer a more active participant. This means that you can watch the conductor and orchestra at the same time you see the action on the stage. 

Meyer leaned in and said, “I am a music lover. We want these streaming transmissions to be as natural and transparent as possible. I don’t like videos and HDs with too many camera cuts and switches. That is like watching a tennis match or advertising. We want to present a much more calm type of transmission linked to the music. It must reflect what is happening on the stage, not overwhelm it with technology that makes it more like a film.” 

He wants to add options such as a fixed camera that shows the conductor to viewers for whom that is the priority. “When you have an excellent conductor it is great to see him at work.” I am especially enthusiastic about a plan to simultaneously show the score of each opera being performed so that we can read the music while listening to it. Meyer intends, when possible, to use scores from the archives with the original markings of conductors such as Mahler, Böhm and Karajan. 

Viewers around the world can select from different plans, whether it is one opera for 14 euros, a package of eight (like a subscription series in an opera house) or the possibility for the truly insatiable to see all 45 performances streamed each season. I am not sure I would want to watch these streaming transmissions in my pajamas, but having some Viennese coffee at hand would be sublime.

Photo: Manon, directed by Andrei Serban and starring Anna Netrebko.