I can’t say I liked the piece on Peter Gelb and the Metropolitan Opera in the October 22 issue of the New Yorker. It’s far too positive. In fact, it’s 11 pages of syrup. I hope I’ve made it clear that I admire Peter, and what he’s doing. He’s my poster boy for the future of big classical music institutions; when I was asked to nominate people for a classical music award, I named him (though he didn’t get it). And certainly I liked the things in this piece that showed his personality, and what seems to be his admirable working style.
But still there are major issues at the Met. There are financial issues — balancing the budget, paying for Peter’s new initiatives. There are union issues, artistic issues, issues about collaborations with other Lincoln Center organizations, issues about opera as, in Peter’s words, an “aging art form.” There are issues about strains on the institution, as Peter quite properly moves forward.
None of this is devastating, none (if talked about in public) would rip the company apart. But these issues need to be talked about, and none are covered in the New Yorker piece. Instead we get Mercedes Bass, board member and major donor, mildly saying that she doesn’t like modern operas, but even so supports the Met doing them. Massaging her is of course a serious concern for Peter, but in the Met’s larger progress, it’s only a blip.
Nor is this the first time the New Yorker punted Met reporting. Some years ago, Fredric Dannen wrote a piece on the company. I was thrilled when I saw his byline. He wrote a evealing, funny book called http://www.amazon.com/Hit-Men-Frederic-Dannen/dp/1900924544 Hit Men, about the pirates who ran the big pop record labels in the 1980s. Not that there’s any equivalent dirt at the Met (or, anyway, not much), but still I hoped Dannen might tell us at least a little about whatreally happens there.
No such luck. Dannen sat, figuratively speaking, at James Levine’s feet, and wrote down everything he said. I’m sure the Met was happy with that, and is happy about the New Yorker piece. They got, both times, a big wet kiss, coverage that’s entirely favorable.
But in the longer run, is this in their interest? These pieces are, I fear, unreadable, unless you’re already interested. Certainly they don’t reflect reality. Smart readers will pick that up, consciously or not. Their attention will flag. At best they’ll end up thinking that classical music is a neverland, a dream world of not much interest. So many people worry that classical music is going to get dumbed down, and here we have two unfortunate cases where exactly that happens. The Met should demand serious, critical coverage, in which real issues are discussed. They might feel a short-term loss, if not everything that’s said is favorable, but that’ll be more than balanced by the long-term gain of bringing the company into the real world, where writing about it would be smart enough for serious people to care about.
Footnote: As it happens, I’ve just seen a terrific example of serious opera writing. It’s an essay on the Met’s opening night Lucia, by Daniel Mendelsohn, in the new issue of the New York Review, dated November 22. Mendelsohn doesn’t like the production, and says why with depth and grace no music critic (including me) could match. (Though I think the beginning of his piece, about the opera’s history, isn’t as strong as his thoughts about the performance.)
The Met might not care for this, and especially not for Mendelsohn’s penetrating critique of Natalie Dessay’s acting (Peter Gelb, in the New Yorker, says that Dessay gave one of the great performances in all the Met’s history). But they should be grateful to be treated so seriously. If they want to broaden opera into the kind of theater that serious people like (without necessarily being opera fans), then they’d better be prepared to be taken at their word, and to have literary writers looking hard at how well they succeed.
The New Yorker piece isn’t online, though they did post an abstract of it. The New York Review has nothing from this new issue online yet, but eventually they’ll post a few pieces from it. I hope this is one of them.