*The latest blogpost by Davis Patrick Stearns*
Why the Met’s Peter Gelb Needs The Pet That Bites Him'** *
Opera fans are still digesting the New York Times Sunday magazine’s recent,
candid portrait of the single most controversial person in American opera:
Metropolitan Opera czar Peter Gelb. Though he’s responsible for launching
the Met’s wildly successful movie-theater simulcasts, which have been known
to make the weekly list of top-grossing films, he’s also the guy who took
Rigoletto to Vegas. Most controversially, Gelb produced a media-heavy Ring
cycle directed by Robert Lepage that isn’t widely beloved of critics or
audiences and requires hugely expensive stage machinery that doesn’t always
One of the best parts of the profile, though, is where journalist Chip
Brown took on the subject of Opera News, the Metropolitan Opera
Guild-supported magazine that has been highly critical of several
Gelb-backed productions. At one point, Gelb tried to muzzle the magazine,
though he later relented when accused of censorship. Yet, in a situation
where Opera News has at least an indirect affiliation with the Met, he
defends his action with the rationale: Why keep a pet that bites you?
My rationale: Is that what the pet is really doing? Or is it (to mix
metaphors, perhaps) simply filling its vital role in the operatic
ecosystem? Take a keystone species out of any ecosystem and you never know
how the overall dynamics could change for the worse.
The old critic defenses include “Artists shouldn’t read their reviews;
they should measure them.” Any kind of debate is healthy in artistic realms
– and if we all agreed, it wouldn’t be art. “Critics are the only thing
that stands between the public and paid publicity.” After all, why nobody
believes reviews if they’re relentlessly good. The recent success of the
Met’s Parsifal feels genuine in the wake of the forthright displeasure that
has greeted Lepage’s Wagner Ring in recent seasons.
But these arguments were fashioned for a healthier journalistic climate.
With the news business falling apart, we may be losing more than we think.
The world does not need fewer professional critics. Should they become
extinct – a definite possibility – the perception of opera will be in the
hands of the general public and connoisseurs with blogs. Many of those
connoisseurs are smart and extremely well-informed but tend to take their
roles as artistic watchdogs to an extreme. Some might dismiss an entire
performance on the basis of, say, a few cracked notes. Or an opera director
on the basis of one botched production. And though the New York opera
public is smart, astute and not easily fooled, those who pay for their
tickets can’t help having their perceptions of a performance colored, in
one way or another, by whether they’re getting enough value.
Of course, value comes in many forms: Discovering a new singer, seeing an
older one make a comeback – or, in one notorious case of cast illness,
watching multiple Brunnhilde’s bite the dust before the end of Act III.
Years ago, as a non-critic civilian, I saw The Damnation of Faust at Opera
Company of Philadelphia with Hell depicted as a place inhabited by
overweight hairy men in red strapless evening gowns. I’ve been dining out
on that one for decades. I got my money’s worth there.
With any luck, critics have a sense of balance that civilians and
connoisseurs do not. Some accuse The New York Times‘s Anthony Tommasini of
going too easy on the Met. Quite honestly, I’m too busy writing my own
stuff to monitor him closely enough to have any sort of opinion on that.
But what I have read is admirably responsible, and not about calling
attention to himself through the kind of bitchy dismissals that many opera
fans love to read. Let’s face it: The world believes the naysayers first –
at least among those who want to be told what to think. But responsible
critics don’t lead lynch mobs – even when they’re encouraged to. They don’t
simply give good reviews to what they like, but to what is good. I’m not
likely to ever enjoy The Elixir of Love – it’s just not my piece – but I
know a good production of it when I see one. Seasoned critics also know
that Gelb could be the greatest opera administrator on the planet and still
have a certain percentage of failures: Productions only show their
strengths and weaknesses until they’re in front of a real audience, which
is too late for changes. That doesn’t mean you whitewash the failures. But
you don’t need to treat them as a capital offense. It’s only opera, right?
My idea of a civilized opera argument is when two people perceive exactly
the same thing but attach different value to it.
For example, anyone who thinks that Robert Lepage has walked too much on
the wild side by staging concerts for Peter Gabriel and shows for Cirque de
Soleil is likely to see the lapses in his Ring cycle in a
less-then-tolerant way. I know Lepage’s work rather comprehensively – all
of his movies, most of his major opera and spoken-theater productions
(including the ones that last seven hours), everything but the rock
concerts and the Cirque. I may well agree with the Ring naysayers as to
where the lapses are. But knowing that Lepage is a genius attempting to
write with a 500-pound pen, rather than an interloper who doesn’t belong at
the Met, I’m likely to see what he was going for even when he doesn’t get
it (though the head-scratching final scene in Gotterdammerung was a sad
exception to that).
The depressing part is that the Met would perhaps be a more artistically
credible version of what Gelb wants the house to be were there more of
Lepage’s Cocteau-esque vision on its stage. But I don’t think there will be
many happy returns with the prevailing opinion of him being what it is. But
would that be the case were there more critics out there giving a greater
diversity of opinions?