Here’s an excerpt from a “Sightings” column I wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2006 about Peter Gelb, the then-new general manager of the Metropolitan Opera:
Mr. Gelb has set music lovers to buzzing yet again, this time about his latest innovation. Starting in December, the company will beam a half-dozen of its Saturday matinees into movie theaters in the U.S., Canada and Europe–live. “We want to make the Met as available electronically to its followers as the Yankees are to theirs,” Mr. Gelb told the Washington Post. The first broadcast will be Julie Taymor’s much-admired “Lion King”-style production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” cut to 90 minutes and performed in a new, family-friendly English-language version.
I can already hear the purists rumbling, and I hate to put a damper on their high dudgeon, but the truth is that most of Mr. Gelb’s “new” ideas are older than I am. Among the first things Rudolf Bing did when he took charge of the Met in 1949, for instance, were to start hiring big-name stage and screen directors like Garson Kanin and Alfred Lunt and to give selected performances of popular operas in English. As for the notion of piping closed-circuit broadcasts of the Met’s performances into movie theaters, it was tried a half-century ago. Alas, the Met’s 1952 movie-house “Carmen” flopped, as did a similar attempt to broadcast Richard Burton’s 1964 Broadway production of “Hamlet.”
Will the company’s new venture be more successful? I doubt it. Not only are large-screen versions of actual stage performances visually unsatisfying, but opera itself is simply not a mass medium, PBS’s increasingly infrequent telecasts from the Met notwithstanding. Even such ambitious undertakings as Franco Zeffirelli’s big-budget films of “La Traviata” (1982) and “Otello” (1986) failed to make it out of art-house purgatory. Significantly, last week’s announcement contained no information about how many theaters would be showing the Met’s broadcasts, and Mr. Gelb did his best to keep expectations low, explaining that “The Magic Flute” would be opening “right in the middle of the biggest box office weekend of the year.” Translation: Who’s going to bother with Mozart when he can see “Dreamgirls” instead?
Answer: lots and lots and lots of people. The Met’s movie-house high-definition simulcasts have turned out to be one of Gelb’s biggest successes to date. So since I’d put my foot in it up to my eyebrows, I resolved to do penance by trying to figure out why I’d been wrong–and what I was missing. To this end, I went to see the Met’s new production of Peter Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera House on February 28, then took a train to Philadelphia two weeks later to watch the same production telecast on the silver screen.
What did I learn? The answer is in this week’s “Sightings” column. Pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, turn to the “Weekend Journal” section, and watch me dine on freshly roasted crow.
UPDATE: Read the whole thing here.