Intrigue at the Met!
While very serious real-life crises of diplomacy and leadership play out on the front pages and in the 5pm hour of All Things Considered, a more circumscribed crisis of classical music diplomacy and leadership has lately been the buzz of the arts pages and blogosphere. Now, where in the wide, wonderful of classical music do we find such juicy stories in greatest profusion? At the opera, of course, especially at the Metropolitan. I mean, you've got the oversized personalities, you've got the loud voices, you've got the dramatic scenes — and what takes place on stage is lots of fun, too (rim shot)!
Since becoming general director of the Met in 2006, Peter Gelb had enjoyed fairly consistent praise for his upgrade of the company's reputation. Adventurous new productions, interesting repertoire, "Live in HD" transmissions — the stodgy old Met became relevant once again, and Gelb became the very model of a modern arts administrator. But now some dissenting voices are shouting out from the rabble. And Mr. Gelb doesn't like it.
Of course, there have been dissenting voices throughout Gelb's tenure, such as the delightfully dishy La Cieca at Parterre Box. (Digression: This is the kind of thing that makes opera so much fun even for those who can't stand a note of it!) But now, the criticism is coming from the mainstream media — you know, the media that average people actually read, listen to, and take seriously. First, it was The New Yorker's Alex Ross, one of the most respected classical critics around. How bad was it? This bad:
The Met still puts on big, starry shows, with hundreds of gifted people laboring behind the scenes to bring them to life. But one staging after another has failed to catch fire, and the most ambitious undertaking of the Gelb era, Robert Lepage’s production of Wagner’s “Ring,” is a very damp squib.
Ah, the Robert Lepage "Ring," all $16 million of it. How well was the money spent, according to Ross?
Pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.
OK, that's just one critic, and there's nothing you can do about it. At least there's still the Met's own house organ, Opera News, to put out the party line. Or maybe not, to judge from this passage from the magazine's May 2012 issue:
I think the majority of people who deeply love opera would agree that we are in the midst of a very bad period (at the Met). The public is becoming more dispirited each season by the pretentious and woefully misguided, misdirected productions foisted on them. I know this because I sit in the audience and I listen to what people around me are saying in intermission.
This is excerpted from the back-of-the-book "Coda" article called "Trust in the Audience," written by Opera News features editor and columnist Brian Kellow. The May issue is not on-line yet, but you can read the whole article in samizdat here. Hooray for editorial independence!
And boos and hisses when such independence is taken away, which seems to have happened to Olivia Giovetti, a contributor to WQXR's "Operavore" blog. As reported by the New York Times' Daniel J. Wakin in the paper's "Circling the Ring" blog, a piece by Giovetti was pulled from "Operavore" by New York Public Radio, owner of WQXR, after Gelb had complained to New York Public Radio's president and chief executive, Laura Walker. Again, we have Parterre Box to thank for posting the offending blog post.
While I (unlike Parterre Box's redoubtable La Cieca) prefer not to use the word "censorship" when referring to an exercise in editorial judgment — it's their blog, and they get to decide what goes on it and what doesn't — I also question the station's judgment in pulling the piece, rather than seeing that any factual errors (if indeed there were any) were corrected. Either writers can write what they want (within proper journalistic standards) or they can't. And either you have an exciting, vital, controversial blog or a bunch of press releases. I know which of the two I would want to contribute to. And you would think that an experienced executive like Peter Gelb would know better than to lean on a media outlet to withdraw an unflattering story, if there was any chance of his action leaking to the press. Imagine the fun Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and the folks at Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me! would have with this if one of the Republican presidential candidates had done such a thing.
Further reading: Peter Gelb's recent interview with the New Yotk Times' Anthony Tommasini. And Lloyd Schwartz's review in The Boston Phoenix of the full season of the Met in HD. That's Bryn Terfel as Wotan pictured above. And a disclosure: I haven't seen any of the "Ring" production mentioned above.