The New York Times ran a story last week about a now-deceased Texas oil heiress whose estate is suing the Metropolitan Opera. During her lifetime, Sybil Harrington, the lady in question, gave the Met $27 million, with the explicit (and obviously well-lawyered) proviso that the money be used in support of “at least one new production each Metropolitan Opera season by composers such as Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, Wagner, Strauss and others whose works have been the core of the repertory of the Metropolitan Opera during its first century, with each such new production to be staged and performed in a traditional manner that is generally faithful to the intentions of the composer and the librettist.” The Met obliged, going so far as to name its auditorium after her.
After Harrington died in 1998, her estate gave the company another $5 million to televise its productions, with a similar stipulation that the gift be used “exclusively for the televising of traditional/grand opera productions of the Metropolitan Opera…set in a place and time and staged as the composer placed it.” The estate charges, among other complicated things, that the Met spent some of that money on a telecast of a non-traditional production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and wants her money returned.
Joe Volpe, who runs the Met, isn’t talking, except to say he’s “confident that, at the end of this affair, the name of the Metropolitan Opera will remain unsullied.” Right. In fact, the Times story seems to leave little doubt that the Met did what the Harrington estate says it did, though if you’ve followed the eternalitigation in which Philadelphia’s Barnes Collection is entangled, you know nothing is simple when cultural institutions find themselves in legal hot water.
What interests me, though, is less the suit than the terms of the original gift. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Met agreed to let a Texas oil heiress dictate a good-sized chunk of its artistic policy, which strikes me as…well, where shall I begin? Provincial? Irresponsible? How about downright boneheaded? On the other hand, the whole thing starts to sound less surprising when you consider the past decade or so of new Met productions. Yes, I’ve seen some theatrically breathtaking things there (Mark Lamos’ Wozzeck comes immediately to mind), but in recent years, with only a few exceptions, the company’s productions have typically oscillated between rigidly hyper-traditional stagings of standard operas like Madama Butterfly and Eurotrashy anything-for-an-effect stagings of non-standard operas like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. All of which makes me wonder: To what extent were Sybil Harrington and her oil money responsible for the fact that the Met has become so tired and unadventurous, theatrically speaking?
Granted, it isn’t easy for the Met to put on a theatrically serious show–the house is too large. Nor do I believe that neo-traditional stagings of standard operas are necessarily a bad thing (though I can’t remember the last time I saw a good one). In any case, I’m well aware that older operagoers as a group tend to hate adventurous operatic productions. They want trees with leaves. So maybe Harrington simply made it possible for the Met to do what it would have done anyway, only with more leaves.
All I’m saying is that when I go to the opera, I want to see something that’s worth seeing, not just hearing. Which may be why I now go to New York City Opera far more often than the Met. But that’s another posting.
(Incidentally, the Times is also reporting that the powers-that-be have decided against including a new downtown house for New York City Opera in their Ground Zero redevelopment plans–a huge disappointment for those, myself included, who thought it a terrific idea. I suspect it won’t be the last such disappointment as the plans start to take clearer shape.)