What’s Right With the Metropolitan Opera

Karita Mattila in Salome, 2008, Metropolitan Opera(Photo: Mary Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
Karita Mattila in Salome, 2008, Metropolitan Opera(Photo: Mary Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

It’s always intriguing to read about the Metropolitan Opera. So when I saw Norman Lebrecht‘s ArtsJournal blog post entitled “You want to know what’s wrong with the Met?” I was drawn to it like a fly to molasses. Now I’m writing a blog post of my own as I process Lebrecht’s piece, which raised some issues.

Lebrecht Rips The New York Times and The Met

Lebrecht describes The New York Times as the Met’s “press puppet” and lambastes the paper for running a “puff piece” about the opening of the Met premiere of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead.

Lebrecht takes issue with the Times story’s beginning, which makes a tall claim for the Met: “Just as a diva regards her Metropolitan Opera debut as proof that she has arrived, a Met premiere confers on a work a lasting seal of approval.”

Is The New York Times the Met’s handmaiden? From my perspective here in Central Ohio, I have only limited insight into this question. Lebrecht’s major complaint, though, is that the Met regards itself (and, through the Times, publicizes itself) as the world’s operatic ne plus ultra. ” . . . Which other city newspaper would so pump up its opera house to state that until a work has been staged there it simply doesn’t exist?,” Lebrecht asks.

And, after having laid bare the Met’s relative tardiness in coming to Janacek’s operas, Lebrecht continues: “Despite lagging behind the rest of the world on this and many other creative fronts, the Met and the Times manage to pretend that they are the umbilicus mundi of opera, the seal of approval without which the art form would wither and die. It’s a tragic case of self-delusion and one that inflicts sustained damage on the advancement of opera in the United States.”

“The Met is, beyond contention, one of the world’s important opera houses,” Lebrecht continues, back-pedaling while not back-pedaling. “But while its present chief Peter Gelb deserves credit for dragging it halfway into the 20th century (forget the 21st), its inflated self-image has, with the Times’s help, stultified the art and New York’s expectations.

The Met is a monolith, a near-monopoly with a tame newspaper in tow. The only seal ever bestowed by the Met is that of certified safety.”

The View of The Met From Ohio

“Lagging behind the rest of the world?” Peter Gelb’s “dragging it halfway into the 20th century?” “Forget the 21st?” The Met’s “inflated self-image has, with the Times’s help, stultified the art and New York’s expectations?”

Really?

Again, I don’t know enough about the workings of The New York Times vis-a-vis the Metropolitan Opera to make any claims. But my vantage point as an opera lover/follower outside New York (and yes, there are opera lovers outside New York) means I have certainly different, maybe even helpful insights into where the Met is on the global operatic playing field.

I have seen and heard a number of performances from the nosebleed section at the Met, and there’s nothing like the quality of a Met production or the energy of a Met audience.

The Met in HD

Seeing the Met’s HD transmissions (one of those “halfway into the 20th century” artistic decisions, I guess) brings – no, advances – no small measure of that excitement, and top-of-the-line productions, right to my own backyard, a region (unspoken East Coast biases to the contrary) full of passionate, intelligent, and savvy opera listeners of whom Lebrecht was evidently unaware when crowing about the Met’s “stultifying . . . New York’s expectations.”

(And what exactly in last season’s brilliant Met productions of Salome and Madama Butterfly, to name just a couple, would qualify as “stultifying” or ”inflated?”)

So even if before the HD transmissions happened the Met was an opera house of international repute, with the help of technology, it now belongs to the world. But now that the San Francisco Opera, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, and other companies are jumping on the HD bandwagon, is the Met any more of a “monolith” than it always has been?

One really must admit the Met’s not too shabby. So, if “the Met is, beyond contention, one of the world’s important opera houses,” then what’s wrong with the Met’s – and with our – just saying so?

Why shouldn’t we consider the Met to be the leader of the opera world,  and why shouldn’t the Met aspire to continue to be at the top of this world? We all can only benefit, it would seem.

Maybe Lebrecht wants more twentieth-century opera and more cutting-edge productions at the Met. Fine. Maybe he wants more true classical music criticism, less advocacy from the Times. An admirable desire.

While the Met certainly doesn’t need me to defend it, I believe in giving credit where credit is due.  And if in doing so I am (unjustifiably) chalked up as just another journalistic toady, that’s unfortunate, but, I guess, so be it.

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