I went to a Broadway show (The Drowsy Chaperone, a wise and delightful musical), and noticed that the Metropolitan Opera had an ad in the playbill. If I remember correctly, they didn’t use the word “opera” at all. Instead, they listed the directors from stage and screen who’ll be doing new productions this year, and encouraged everyone to come to the opera house to see some theater.
Then there was an ad in the Times, featuring the singer who’s playing the devil in Faust, looking superbly theatrical. And then earlier this week, there was another ad, urging all of us to see the new production of The Barber of Seville, again not using the word “opera,” but instead stressing music-theater, and also making sure we know that the director of the production also directed The Light in the Piazza at the Lincoln Center Theater.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this. Certainly it brings the Met into a new era — one in which people might not have patience with old-fashioned opera, and in which opera therefore has to compete with movies, TV, and stage productions, all of which come off far better (in terms of acting, directing, and mise en scene) than opera mostly has.
But now I have to ask: Can the Met live up to its advertising? Will enough of its productions really be engrossing theater, as the opening-night Butterfly was? But note the kind of challenge this is. The company, in effect, might be forcing itself to get better artistically, in order to meet its marketing goals!
Which makes sense. Ultimately, marketing isn’t the answer, for opera or for anything else in classical music. The answer lies in what kind of performances we put on. If we can engage and excite people, classical music will flourish. If not, classical music will die. And let’snot think that the performances we already do — good as they might be in traditional classical-music terms — are going to do the job. It’s a whole new world out there, an evolving new culture, and classical music as we’ve known it simply isn’t probing, current, or smart enough to fit in.
(Footnote: the singing at the Met is yet another story. It, too, ought to be better, but there’s a shortage worldwide of people who can really deliver the standard operas. Even the opening Butterfly suffered from that. The performance got an ovation, but — or so I thought — a curiously short one. If the singers had been more compelling, the cheers would surely have gone through the roof.)
And about The Drowsy Chaperone! There’s one lyric I can’t resist quoting:
I’m an accident waiting to happen
A mishap about to ensue
Literacy, I’m thrilled to say, is clearly not dead. And I might almost believe that Cole Porter had come back to life.