If ever you need to know what’s wrong with the Metropolitan Opera and its press puppet, the New York Times, look no further than the opening paragraph of last weekend’s puff piece for tonight’s production of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead. Here goes:
Just as a diva regards her Metropolitan Opera debut as proof that she has arrived, a Met premiere confers on a work a lasting seal of approval. On Thursday, that honor will fall to Leos Janacek’s From the House of the Dead…
Read that and weep. Which part of that sentence and a half might not have been written by a publicity agent? And which other city newspaper would so pump up its opera house to state that until a work has been staged there it simply doesn’t exist? Why, the late Mr Janacek must be jumping out of his grave with joy at the news that his last work is finally getting the seal of approval after 80 years of neglect.
Never mind that House of the Dead has been staged by every major European house and festival over the past four decades, or that Janacek is a box-office cert in most opera cities, a trailblazer for social realism on the opera stage. He became a fixture in London in the 1950s through the advocacy of Rafael Kubelik and Charles Mackerras, in Paris and Berlin soon after and in Milan during the Abbado years. Operagoers in Europe regard Janacek as staple rep.
New York, though, takes no risks. It was 1991 before the Met got around to staging Katya Kabanova, the composer’s most powerful work after Jenufa, and its public still regards the Czech as as esoteric innovation. Looking at the Met website, there are swathes of vacant seats for the new production.
Despite lagging behind the rest of the world on this and many other creative fronts, the Met and the Times manage to pretend that they are the umbilicus mundi of opera, the seal of approval without which the art form would wither and die. It’s a tragic case of self-delusion and one that inflicts sustained damage on the advancement of opera in the United States.
The Met is, beyond contention, one of the world’s important opera houses. But while its present chief Peter Gelb deserves credit for dragging it halfway into the 20th century (forget the 21st), its inflated self-image has, with the Times’s help, stultified the art and New York’s expectations. The Met is a monolith, a near-monopoly with a tame newspaper in tow. The only seal ever bestowed by the Met is that of certified safety.