Dumbing it down

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.

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  1. Carlos says

    What could you possibly mean by “bringing the company into the real world?”

    In the past few years I’ve attended opera performances in New York (MET, NYCO), Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Chicago, Seattle, Santa Fe, San Francisco, and London. So although I am not a professional music critic or even a professional musician, I have a basis to compare opera companies and productions.

    The MET is simply the best there is in the real world of opera. The orchestra and chorus are always first rate, and even with a cast of relative unknowns the MET is still outstanding.

    Well, gosh. A lot of people don’t go to the Met. The company had a serious problem over the last few years because they didn’t sell enough tickets. Now they’re selling more, but they still have a way to go.

    You’re obviously a hardcore fan. Classical music in general has failed to attract smart and educated people who follow other art forms. This wasn’t true in the past. In order to appeal to these people, it needs to function in the same cultural world as other things do — things ranging from visual art to books to pop music. For that to happen, the Met needs to be talked about intelligently in the press, not fawningly.

    I’m glad you like the performances you hear. You’d get an argument from many people. I myself would challenge you about the orchestra. To my ear, they play well for some conductors, and notably badly for others. Or even, sometimes, for the same conductor on different occasions. They wouldn’t be alone in that. Many orchestras do the same thing, and if you ask the musicians about it — in private, of course — they’ll often enough say that many conductors aren’t so great, and that it’s the conductor’s fault if they don’t play well.

    As long as you’re happy with what you see and hear at the Met, none of this has to matter to you. But you should be willing to admit that not everyone sees the Met as you do.

  2. says


    It would be interesting if you would expand on your view of the issues facing the Met.

    Well, very briefly:

    The financial issues aren’t easy. The Met accumulated quite a large deficit before Peter came in. I’ve heard, though I don’t have figures, that the deficits have continued. I don’t think this is disastrous. It costs money to change course, and develop new programs. The live streams to movie theaters have been especially expensive, and the Met itself has said it uses endowment funds to pay some part of the cost. So the question now would be — where does the Met find a financial model for solvency in the new era? The policy innovations are fabulous, but we don’t know yet how the institution will stay afloat financially.

    Artistic issues: There’s a shortage internationally of really top singers, and the casting — not only at the Met, but everywhere — isn’t always plausible. What does the Met do about that? And how much will it cost?

    And then there’s the emphasis on theater. How well willl that work out? The Lucia and Macbeth productions raised questions for some people. See for instance my blog on Lucia, or, much better, the New York Review piece. Will the new theatricality be enough to bring in — and keep — a new audience? That’s probably one of the biggest questions the Met faces. They’re selling more tickets, but will the performances really engage, longterm, a new audience? Peter himself has said that opera is an “aging art form.” Can he rejuvenate it?

  3. Carlos says

    So if the Met isn’t the best there is in the world of opera, what company is?

    Seven performances a week, for thirty or more weeks a season, the Met delivers. Of course no institution is perfect.

    But compared to the quality of opera in other cities, the Met is in a league of its own.

    My ranking:

    Met A

    Chicago B

    San Francisco B-

    Baltimore B-

    Washington C

    Houston and NYCO don’t count since they amplify the singers.

    If you’re going to say the Met is the best in the world, you’d better add grades for Seattle, St. Louis, LA, Dallas, Santa Fe, London (both companies), La Scala, Vienna, Munich, Glyndebourne, Paris (both companies), Berlin, Bayreuth, and so many more.

    Besides, it would be much more productive — and more artistic — to compare the Met to acknowledged peaks of opera production in the past. I’m thinking, for instance, of the New York City Opera just after the move to Lincoln Center (all those productions with, variously, Rudel, Sills, Treigle, and Frank Corsaro); the Met itself in the ’70s (the John Dexter productions); the Opera Theater of St. Louis in the ’80s, La Scala in the ’50s (at least the new productions for Callas), and Bayreuth under Wieland Wagner. I don’t really care whether the Met is the best in the world. I’d rather talk about the best that opera can be, and how the Met (or any other company) stacks up to that.

    And doesn’t anybody want to comment on what I actually said in my post?