12 April 2007

It's over, "the fat lady sings" no more

The extraordinary piece in the paper this morning regarding the alarming trends in casting at the Met is interesting in so many ways, not least because it emanates from what we've all come to accept as the Met's premiere kowtow-central, the New York Times, and penned by its kowtow-in-chief Anthony Tommasini, whose unfavorable criticisms of our beloved institution throughout the years can be counted with one hand. Because it is a rare event, such a piece yields more force, and will likely echo in many chambers for some time. Putting Peter Gelb on notice by using the Ruth Ann episode as a springboard, which by the way validates the essential positions of the scorned soprano, may be an inflection point in this continuing struggle of sound v. sex at the Met:

Singing must come first in opera, and Mr. Gelb has emphasized that he of all people understands this. But if his determination to raise the dramatic impact of opera has caused him to undervalue a singer as fine as the soprano Ruth Ann Swenson, then Mr. Gelb may be going too far in his campaign to make the Met a hotspot of musical drama.
The piece goes on to identify a possible solution to the dilemma, which is that the Met should engage imaginative directors who can turn fine singers (some "built like linebackers") into acceptable actors. I agree with this suggestion. The other path towards "theatricality", the now infamous Covent Garden approach (i.e., make the little black dress and engage that soprano who can "move" best in it), is clearly not the best way.

However, the article walked carefully around the fundamental problem as I see it. The axiom "singing comes first in opera" may itself be under siege. In
Charlie Rose, Gelb himself said (my own transcription):
The Met board understood that, as great an institution as the Met has been, and it's generally regarded certainly as the greatest opera company in the country if not in the world, that it wasn't enough in the last years to rely just upon musical excellence. The Met is the most musically excellent of all opera companies, with great tradition with the wonderful orchestra ... It's really the envy of the opera world, and the Met is also known as the house of the greatest singers, the deepest casting; and in any given night or week, the greatest opera stars are at the Met.

But what the Met has not been able to deal with in recent years has been a need to kind of reinvent itself. And this is not an indictment of the past, but merely a truth of today, which is that when you're dealing with an ageing artform, which opera is, it has to be approached with a very modern, extraenergetic fashion. And opera has to be treated both as a theatrical as well as a musical artistic event.
Gelb has been very consistent in emphasizing that "theatrical" considerations are co-equal with "musical" values in the production of a perfect operatic experience. In every single interview, this is the one point he's sure to make. I grant that this concept has legitimate academic appeal, but its application to real world scenarios can be problematic. The "balance" between theatrical and musical values can never be fully realized in many situations, because there will always be demands coming from both sides, often squarely contradictory, that will require painful compromise to resolve. It is impossible to serve two masters, and that sort of thing. Some may not agree with the "singing first" axiom to begin with, and for them these may be welcome developments. But for folks like me who don't cringe at the word "museum", who actually enjoy things like "the voice", and who hold "musical excellence" as the summit of our best dreams, our worst fears are beginning to play out on our most cherished stage.