01 September 2014


The Metropolitan Opera [Photo by the author]

Exasperating as the weeks prior to resolution of the Metropolitan Opera’s labor crisis were for many people both participating in and observing the mediations, there is perhaps something inherently heartening in the fact that the continued operation of one of the great bastions of what is deemed by some sources to be a dying art form inspired such passionate debate. Fuses are almost always understandably short when livelihoods are at stake, and the sheer enormity of the challenges facing the MET cannot be ignored or underestimated. In a real sense, though, the problems that brought the MET to the brink of disaster this summer cannot be solved overnight: there are issues in play that are generational rather than situational. The greatest possible failure would be to overlook the ways in which New York, the United States, and the musical world in general have changed since the MET took up residence in its home at Lincoln Center in 1966. The invaluable Chagall murals have looked out upon both the disintegration of the MET’s sister company across the plaza and the revitalization of the Broadway theatre scene in the years since the crippling blow of 11 September 2001. Beyond the dollars and cents of contract negotiations and production costs, the true question that lurks in the shadows is whether any of this really matters. In this age of venomous rhetoric and the bewildering notion of institutions being ‘too big to fail,’ what is the Metropolitan Opera’s place in contemporary musical America? As the sea of oblivion swallows so many Arts organizations and dictates artistic decisions, does the MET genuinely deserve a seat in the life raft?

My first experience at the Metropolitan Opera was a 1997 performance of the Franco Zeffirelli production of Bizet’s Carmen with Denyce Graves in the title rôle, Plácido Domingo as Don José, Norah Amsellem as Micaëla, and Gino Quilico as Escamillo. I was nineteen years old and had seen opera in cities as dissimilar as Raleigh and Moscow. I was a young pianist and violinist and had been told that I possessed a good voice that should be trained and shared. My first exposure to ‘serious’ vocal music came at the age of eight, when I was drafted by a traveling company that visited my elementary school to participate in a performance of music by Gilbert and Sullivan. As a third-grader with a range that extended at least to soprano F6, I was quite annoyed at being given the child’s part with the most to remember and sing, but a seed was planted. The leader of the traveling troupe recommended voice lessons and singing with a good boys’ choir, but these sorts of opportunities were few and far between in the South three decades ago. Precisely why I wanted a piano a year later is a continuing mystery, but my parents’ condition for buying the desired instrument was that I must take lessons until I acquired some notion of how to play the thing. [Sorry, Mom and Dad, that I was ultimately more horror film than Horowitz as a pianist.] As a high-schooler, I saved change from my lunch money to buy my first opera recordings: the DECCA Fidelio with Birgit Nilsson and James McCracken and the Philips La bohème with Katia Ricciarelli and José Carreras. I no longer recall whether I had heard Carmen prior to seeing the MET performance, but some of the music was surely familiar to me. The Zeffirelli Carmen was extravagant, decadent even, but I was enthralled by the realism, the grandeur, and the imagination of it. The tableau shown during the Act Three Prelude, some of the most exquisitely beautiful music ever composed, will never leave my memory, the depiction of rain falling gently on the mountainside that camouflages the smugglers’ lair haunting in its loveliness and suggestion of calm before calamity. It may not have been a performance of Carmen for the ages, but it introduced me to the Metropolitan Opera with elegance and largesse. It was and will always be my Carmen.

A day later, another Zeffirelli production offered me the opportunity to make the musical acquaintance of Luciano Pavarotti, who sang Calàf in Puccini’s Turandot opposite Jane Eaglen in the title rôle and Hei-Kyung Hong as Liù. It was late in the day for Pavarotti, whose lyric instrument was stretched by Calàf’s music when in its prime, especially in a house of the size of the MET, but he sang with concentration and vocal sheen. By this time in his career, he was the very personification of the stand-and-sing stereotype, but even with limited mobility he was engaging. The superb diction for which he was seldom given sufficient praise made the sentiments of ‘Non piangere, Liù’ vivid and touching, and his answering of Turandot’s riddles rang with impassioned defiance. The resolve with which he planted his feet and tightened his stance as the climactic phrase of ‘Nessun dorma’ approached might have seemed comical out of context, but there was little doubting that when this Calàf sang ‘all’alba vincerò’ he meant it. His top B was not the clarion noise of a Corelli or del Monaco, but it was solid and exciting. Domingo’s Don José and Pavarotti’s Calàf represented the MET as I had imagined it to be: important singers in typical—if not always ideal—rôles, supported by gifted conductors and one of the greatest orchestras in the world.

Since being baptized in the melodious waters of opera and being reborn as a proselytizer for the genre, the history and legacy of the Metropolitan Opera have been crucial components of my decidedly imperfect operatic education. As a foreigner at university, the MET’s Saturday broadcasts became a link to home in an artistic sense, and the eight-decades-worth of broadcasts available officially and unofficially form a cache of performances both ordinary and extraordinary that exhibit the good, the bad, and the ugly of opera in the past century. Whilst driving recently through Texas Hill Country, where the highfaluting denizens of the MET would be as alien as Martians, I listened to two broadcasts from years past. The first, a 1951 performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, preserves the singing of a cast of voices one almost certainly would never encounter in Mozart repertory today, and the second, a Die Walküre from 1977, is a performance that should be second-rate but manages to be riveting from beginning to end. Anyone who sees Paolo Silveri, Ljuba Welitsch, Regina Resnik, and Eugene Conley on the cast list for Don Giovanni must be forgiven for assuming that there is some mistake. In 2014, the notion of hearing voices like these—assuming that they exist—in Mozart operas, even in large opera houses, is almost ridiculous. Nadine Conner, who in 1951 sang Zerlina, might now be singing Elvira or even Anna: the irony, of course, is that Conner, a consummate artist and musician whose MET rôles included Mozart’s Susanna and Pamina (the rôle of her début), Verdi’s Gilda and Violetta, Gounod’s Marguerite, Offenbach’s Antonia, Strauss’s Sophie, and Puccini’s Mimì, could likely have sung both parts honorably (and, indeed, in houses other than the MET may well have done). Silveri, a distinguished Verdi baritone, has more voice than almost any Giovanni heard in recent years, and he is a more dangerous, eerily seductive figure as a result: when this Giovanni is dragged to hell, there is no questioning that it is a well-earned trip. Welitsch was in a sort of vocal Indian summer, but her Anna is a deeply-felt, undeniably glamorous creation, thoroughly enjoyable provided that one does not require dull perfection. Resnik’s Elvira is a characterization worthy of this great artist: more impressively, the music is phenomenally sung, the tricky runs and awkwardly-placed top notes in ‘Ah, fuggi il traditor’ executed with aplomb, and she is an Elvira whose hysteria never trumps her innate dignity. Conley had a ruggedly handsome voice of moderate size—the kind of voice that would now be forced into inappropriately heavy repertory. After hearing Twenty-First-Century Ottavios, Conley seems a vocal behemoth, but he, too, delivers his music at a very high level and sings his part with élan. Ottavio is still a twit but in this performance at least not an anemic and undernourished one. Lorenzo Alvary is a Masetto who will not be ignored, and Nicola Moscona is a Commendatore who dies with dignity and haunts with gusto. Salvatore Baccaloni was getting on in years (and sounds it) and is an exaggeratedly blustering but occasionally surprisingly vulnerable Leporello. Neither the choral singing nor the orchestral playing are unfailingly first-rate, but Fritz Reiner conducts Don Giovanni like a real opera, not a dainty period piece. His performance sounds nothing like how readings of Mozart’s operas sound today, but it soars when it should soar, startles when it should startle, and elates when it should elate. Is such a level of commitment to revealing the dramatic intensity of a composer’s genius to an audience ever unstylish?

The ’77 Walküre, conducted raptly if somewhat lugubriously by Erich Leinsdorf, whose MET début in 1938 was also in Die Walküre, is an unexpected triumph of ensemble casting. A trio of Americans in principal rôles prove especially wonderful. James King’s Siegmund was a well-traveled portrayal, heard at Bayreuth and virtually everywhere else that Wagner was performed in the 1960s and ‘70s, but his singing in this performance exceeds his own standards, particularly in the final pages of Act One. Sieglinde receives from Janis Martin one of the finest performances of this underappreciated singer’s career. The high lines of ‘O hehrstes Wunder’ do not come easily, but she taps reserves of vocal strength when the character and her music are most demanding. The focus, ferocity, and security of Mignon Dunn’s Fricka are awe-inspiring. The most confident Wotan would tremble at this Fricka’s displeasure, but Dunn commands without distortion or duress. Were this not a compellingly-acted performance, it would nonetheless be legendary solely for Dunn’s visceral, unflappable singing. Manfred Schenk is a stolid, sturdy Hunding, effective but no match for his high-octane colleagues. As Wotan and Brünnhilde, a pair of Brits turned up in New York to remind the MET audience of how moving Wagner’s music can be when sung with attention to producing properly-supported tone and maintaining bel canto lines. Good Siegmunds and Sieglindes have historically been more plentiful than good Wotans and Brünnhildes, but the first minutes of Act Two in this performance erase all doubts about consistency in casting. A legitimate bass-baritone comfortable with the full range of Wotan’s music, Norman Bailey sings with a drive and world-weariness that evoke sympathy from his first phrase. He is an inept husband and harsh father because he is insecure: Wagner makes this obvious, but how many Wotans also convey it while singing sonorously and accurately? There is a certain heaviness in Bailey’s singing, but he uses this to his advantage, making his cavernous tone evocative of the depths of Wotan’s frustration and despair. His Wotan is lightened by discernible joy when Rita Hunter jubilantly fires off Brünnhilde’s opening volley of ‘Hojotohos,’ every trill delivered and top note placed with precision. Hunter was a large woman whose size limited her viability as a stage creature in the eyes of some observers. She was also a lovely, unpretentious lady whose performance philosophy was refreshingly uncomplicated: learn the music thoroughly, then sing it as well as possible. The ease with which Hunter sings Brünnhilde’s music in this performance, uncannily combining power with an attractively girlish timbre, is tremendous. The monumental steadiness and beauty of her lower register are inestimably beneficial in the Todesverkündikung and Brünnhilde’s exchanges with Wotan in Act Three, in which she interacts with equal fortitude with King’s Siegmund and Bailey’s Wotan. She and Bailey bring the performance to a close with singing of uncompromising excellence. The shared heartbreak of this Wotan and his favorite daughter spills over the footlights and flows across the years undiluted and undiminished.

Since my first Carmen seventeen years ago, I have been privileged to witness some memorable portrayals at the MET: Sumi Jo’s fragile but determined—and perfectly-projected—Gilda; Dolora Zajick’s pot-boiling Azucena, complete with the top C demanded by the score in Act Two; Deborah Voigt’s Cassandre in Les Troyens and Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten; Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s majestic and moving Didon in Les Troyens, in what sadly proved to be her final MET performance; Pamela Armstrong’s sensationally-sung Mimì; Diana Damrau’s Marie and Juan Diego Flórez’s Tonio; Nina Stemme’s Ariadne and Sarah Connolly’s heart-stoppingly intense Komponist. Likewise, there are dozens of broadcasts that have defined and redefined my understandings of individual singers and their artistries: Flagstad’s Leonore and Elsa, Traubel’s Isolde, Varnay’s Sieglinde and Maria Boccanegra, Melchior’s Lohengrin and Tannhäuser, Albanese’s Cio-Cio-San, Steber’s Violetta, Tosca, and Arabella, Nilsson’s Elektra and Turandot, Rysanek’s Senta and Chrysothemis, Sutherland’s Donna Anna, Leontyne Price’s Aida, Arroyo’s Lady Macbeth, Bergonzi’s Nemorino and Pollione. There are also those performances that preserve wondrous details unlikely ever to be duplicated: the ringing sincerity of Lily Pons’s salute to her native France in a wartime La fille du régiment; the inimitable pairings of Maria Callas’s Tosca with the Cavaradossis of Richard Tucker and Franco Corelli; the grim determination of Dorothy Kirsten’s golden-voiced Minnie in La fanciulla del West; the untainted purity of the young Montserrat Caballé’s Luisa Miller and the stunning feat of her long-held top B♭ in the final scene of Don Carlo; the unwavering simplicity of Teresa Żylis-Gara’s Desdemona; the fervor of Gilda Cruz-Romo’s Suor Angelica; the resilience and vocal splendor of David Daniels’s Bertarido in Händel’s Rodelinda. These and thousands of other performances form the heritage not just of artists or even an opera company: they are the musical history of a city, a nation, and an art form. Perhaps the paths taken by the Metropolitan Opera in recent seasons are not what Giulio Gatti-Casazza, Edward Johnson, Sir Rudolf Bing, or previous generations of MET audiences and opera lovers might have envisioned, but the continued endurance of opera depends upon adaptability and flexibility. Is opera in 2014 what Monteverdi, Mozart, Wagner, or Puccini imagined that it would be, if they imagined its longevity at all?

If there are no easy solutions to a problem, the trend in American politics is increasingly to do nothing at all. For better or worse, art is inherently political, and the Metropolitan Opera has fallen victim to the counterproductive finger-pointing and in-fighting that make Washington an impenetrable thicket of inefficiency and ineptitude. As with any business model, the vast majority of the MET’s personnel are not growing rich on their earnings despite the fact that they are performing critical tasks in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Even for an acknowledged star like Renée Fleming, singing is a job in some ways like any other, a job for which she trains, prepares, and must adhere to deadlines and schedules. Have artists’ fees in general become inflated? There is no straightforward answer to this upon which artists, their representatives, and opera company managements can agree, but the expenses of maintaining a career as an artist have undeniably skyrocketed. Now, not even bad publicity is cheap. In this not-so-brave new world, art is a commodity, and in order to preserve its ‘brand appeal’ the MET must be marketed accordingly. Fighting economics is futile even in the alternate reality of opera.

Perhaps the most daunting challenge facing the MET is reconciling the appropriation of public funds with what is by any analysis a minority interest. In America, opera is largely borrowed culture, but it is a genre in which we as a nation have excelled, in part because of our American arrogance that refuses to acknowledge inferiority. Being faced with the deterioration of a venerated institution like the MET, the action of a people who never surrender should be to correct the environmental factors undermining organizational integrity rather than merely plastering over fissures and then pretending that they do not exist. Inexhaustible endowments are the dream of every Arts administrator, but opera is a product that must be sold. Rather than pulling it from the shelves when sales lag, the causes for the decline should be discerned and remedied. There are no silver-bullet solutions for the MET’s problems, but it often seems that attention has been diverted from the single most potent weapon in the MET arsenal: music itself. L'incoronazione di Poppea, Tamerlano, Così fan tutte, Norma, La forza del destino, Parsifal, Salome, and Peter Grimes are no less powerful now than when they were first performed, and those who argue that there are no singers today capable of doing these scores justice simply are not listening. Neither are the guardians of the MET in many cases, admittedly, and the presence of top talent on the MET stage, in the orchestra pit, and on the podium remains a vital but sometimes neglected component of the company’s success. So does the cultivation and retention of an involved, loyal audience.

During the past seventeen years, I have purchased tickets for MET performances whenever I was in New York, even if I could not really afford them. I have shed tears over the deaths of Mimìs and Cio-Cio-Sans who were far from perfectly-sung. I have switched off a few broadcasts in disgust. I have cheered beloved friends appearing on that gargantuan stage. Above all, I have relied upon the Metropolitan Opera as an oasis of cherished artistic traditions in this era in which imagination and ingenuity are valued only if they can be expressed in 140 or fewer characters. My confessedly naïve credo as a musician has long been that my only priority is learning the music at hand absolutely and, knowing it, trusting it as a friend. No one at the Metropolitan Opera knows or cares who I am, but the MET is a friend for whose future I am responsible in my small way. What all of us who love opera must endeavor to perpetuate is that, when future generations hear Nicolas Cage entreat Cher to ‘meet [him] at the MET,’ this still has an aura of magic and old-fashioned but timeless romance.

Mezzo-sopranos Elena Zaremba as Anna (left) and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Didon (right) in Hector Berlioz's LES TROYENS at the MET, 2003 [Photo by Marty Sohl, © The Metropolitan Opera]Thy hand, Belinda…oh, I mean Anna: mezzo-sopranos Elena Zaremba (left) as Anna and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (right) as Didon in Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens at the MET in 2003 [Photo by Marty Sohl, © The Metropolitan Opera]