"What’s wrong with the Metropolitan Opera?" is a question I am asked with troubling frequency. As a New Yorker who loves what the Met represents, hearing this question saddens and pains me to no end. It comes from people in the opera profession (artists, managers, board members, staff) in North America and in Europe. It comes from members of the media who see me as a reasonably impartial expert observer. And it comes from a wide range of opera audiences, of all ages, in person and via e-mail and social media postings.
Typically, the question is asked by people of good will who admire the Met for its many astonishing and unrivaled attributes and its ability, when the stars align, to achieve a level of opera performance that some other companies can equal, but not with the regularity and consistency that the Met at its best has been able to do. But there is a widespread belief on Planet Opera that the Met has been slipping badly. Whether or not that is true, perceptions take on their own kind of veracity that is quite difficult to undo.
The Metropolitan Opera matters because it is one of very few opera houses that serves, in one way or another, as a beacon and standard-bearer for the most complex and glorious of all art forms. Only the Vienna State Opera, Teatro alla Scala, the Paris Opera and the Royal Opera at Covent Garden can be placed in the same league, although there are many other companies (including those of Barcelona, Berlin, Chicago, Munich, St. Petersburg, Salzburg, San Francisco and Zurich) that present outstanding opera with great frequency.
Before embarking on this series of four articles about the Metropolitan Opera, I want to lay some cards on the table so you know where I am coming from. I am a native New Yorker who grew up near the Met and has been attending performances there for 55 of my 58 years. I should point out that I worked at the Met in the 1980s as performance manager, appeared often on radio intermission features for 25 years (until December 2011) and lectured at the Metropolitan Opera Guild, though my talks were always about opera and not about the Met itself. I have also done extensive work for other important opera companies in the U.S. and Europe and bring my perspective as a person who not only knows the operatic repertory but how companies function and the challenges they face.
As a New Yorker, I was raised to believe my city has the capacity--indeed, the mission--for excellence in all things. This is different from the notion of being competitive with other places for being "the best" because how can one really evaluate such things?
The expectation of excellence is a New Yorker’s birthright. We expect our hometown newspaper, the New York Times, to be excellent, as we do our most iconic magazine, the New Yorker. We expect our baseball team, the Yankees, to be excellent and hope for the same from the Mets. So too, we expect excellence from our Public Radio stations and demonstrate that by supporting them when they do well. In education, medical care, research, design, cuisine, fashion, visual arts and just about every aspect of human endeavor, New Yorkers expect excellence.
Public, corporate and individual support of excellent institutions is part of the social compact here. We take pride in New York’s passion for excellence even if we do not partake of all of its offerings. Many of us do not regularly attend performing arts, but we identify with names such as the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall as symbols of what our town stands for.
This city is not perfect and New Yorkers are not shy about expressing their dissatisfaction when the standards we expect are not met. The opinionated New Yorker is a well-worn stereotype, but it is based on the fact that mediocrity has little currency and relevance here. And so we speak up.
One can offer constructive, reasoned criticism with love and concern. Where criticism is expressed in this series, it should be received not as a personal attack on individuals. Rather, it comes from a passionate opera-loving New Yorker who expects customary excellence. I have given these issues great thought and have also received (without having sought) input from many people who love the Met and want it to enjoy ruddy good health, financially and artistically.
Everyone who cares about the Met, and about opera, has been watching the unfolding drama that attends the negotiations between Met management and the company’s 16 unions that represent many of its key employees and artists. This situation is very fluid and, as this article is being published, both sides are digging in their heels and making threatening and ill-considered pronouncements that will be hard to undo. It is deeply regrettable that management, early on, used the word "lockout" and some of the unions have shown a willingness to authorize a strike.
Those of us with long memories vividly recall the eerie darkness in October and November of 1980 as the Met was shuttered during prolonged discord between management and labor. The autumn of that year was a traumatic time. U.S. hostages were being held in Iran. The economy was in terrible shape. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were in a pitched campaign for president and the nation was sharply divided. Gay men and certain other citizens were sickened by a virus that did not yet have a name or a cure. Despite all of these crises, or perhaps because of them, many people bemoaned the tenebrous silence at the Metropolitan Opera House because opera offers solace, insight, joy and escape.
I was at the performance that reopened the opera house on December 10, 1980. It was not an opera but Mahler’s Second Symphony, whose name—The Resurrection—proved an apt metaphor for a company that had been brought low. James Levine conducted splendidly, the Met orchestra played magnificently and the Met chorus sang wonderfully. The marvelous soloists were Judith Blegen and Marilyn Horne. Many tears were shed, onstage and in the auditorium, as the symphony concluded with the choral hymn that begins "Rise again, yea, thou shalt rise again!" I could not locate a performance of the finale with Levine and the Met forces, so please listen to this one led by Claudio Abbado with your eyes shut and picture yourself at the Met’s concert:
That performance of the Resurrection Symphony was only the first of many steps required to resurrect the Met. There were considerable financial losses, too many feelings hurt that took a long time to repair, and many disaffected subscribers and single-ticket purchasers who drifted away from the company and were difficult to attract back. Take it from me, the Met does not want—and cannot afford—for this to happen again.
Right now, the Met’s problems are much more grave, the stakes higher, certain egos too overweening, and a lot of skin much too thin. May I—and we—call for a resolution that everyone involved put the interests of the institution and its public (without whom there is no Met) ahead of any personal considerations and then try to find equitable solutions to each issue without a sense of winning and losing? It is about service to the Metropolitan Opera and to the art form, not to one’s self.
Next: The State of the Art at the Metropolitan Opera