Soon after moving to New York as a young professional (and before becoming a critic), I joined the venerable Metropolitan Opera Club. Arriving by subway one evening for a Met performance, I spotted an older club member on the platform and exited with him. Instead of following other operagoers through a subterranean tunnel to an escalator leading to the box-office area, he motioned to the left and we made our way to the street so as to approach the opera house head on. I’ve favored that route ever since. Through the five tall arches of the house’s façade, you can see the many-tiered foyer, two grand Chagall murals on either side, red-carpeted staircases, crystal chandeliers from the Austrian government, eating and drinking facilities, and dozens of people destined to see the same performance as you. The sight exudes grandeur and expansiveness, as befits a cultural landmark with over 3,800 hundred seats and another 200 standing places. Unlike other opera houses, it offers an inviting hint of what goes on inside, generating excitement even for performances you might expect to be routine.

This season, the Metropolitan Opera House celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, and the company marked the occasion with a gala performance on May 7. The house has been the Met’s home for well over a third of its 134-year existence. In its first fifty seasons, sixty-four operas have had their Metropolitan Opera premieres, eight of which were world premieres. Two hundred and forty new productions have been unveiled. Hundreds of artists have come and gone. So have many top executives and the management structures in which they functioned, ranging from a single autocrat to arrangements for shared responsibility. Yet two figures have been presences almost the entire time. James Levine, currently the music director emeritus, has conducted nearly 2,600 performances since his debut in 1971. He made his debut just five years after the house opened and has variously served as the company’s principal conductor, music director, artistic director, and, currently, music director emeritus. And Plácido Domingo, who made his debut even earlier in 1968, has sung in nearly 700 performances and conducted another 150.

The Metropolitan Opera House exudes grandeur and expansiveness.

What many of us still think of as the “new Met” was badly needed. Stories of the inadequacies of the old house at Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street—such as the need to store scenery on sidewalks—are well known to operagoers. It is difficult not to regret that efforts to preserve the old house were unsuccessful, and perhaps if it still existed it would be seen, like Carnegie Hall, which was also threatened with demolition, as integral to New York’s musical life. But given its size and other limitations, that is hardly a foregone conclusion. As early as 1908—just twenty-five years after it opened—the legendary banker and Met patron Otto Kahn assured Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the new general manager, that a new house could be expected in a few years. After that fell through, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. envisioned the Met as a component of Rockefeller Center and even had plans drawn up by the architect Wallace K. Harrison. But it was only in the mid-1950s that the Met, prodded by the city planner Robert Moses and encouraged by urban renewal legislation, made the decision to join the New York Philharmonic in creating Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side of New York, thereby permitting the new house to become a reality.

Debate over whether the new house should have, like the old one, a traditional horseshoe auditorium with five tiers of seats above an orchestra level or an auditorium with a rectangular shape and one or two overhanging balconies was resolved in favor of the former when it proved feasible to reduce the substantial number of seats that had impaired views in the old house and to increase seating in the orchestra. Final designs by Harrison, who remained with the project, provided for a seating capacity hardly different from that of the old house, thus insuring that the Met’s home would remain the largest of any opera house in the world. While other American opera houses also seat over 3,000, the Opéra Bastille, the largest in Europe of a major company, seats around 2,700. A substantial reduction in capacity was apparently never considered for the new house; on the contrary, some unsuccessfully argued for enlarging capacity to around 4,500. And now the Met is experiencing difficulty in filling the 3,800-seat house.

Initial accounts of the new house accepted its seating capacity as a given but found other things to criticize. The architecture critic of TheNew York Times regarded the conservatism of its design as a missed opportunity, calling the result “a monument manqué.” The same art critic was unimpressed by the “hardly daring” Chagall murals and compared Mary Callery’s sculpture above the proscenium to “a piece of junk jewelry.” Yet audiences have learned to live with the flaws or not regard them as flaws at all. Another defect identified early—the cramped lobby imposed as a cost-cutting measure—is finally expected to be remedied by the construction of a glass lobby stretching out into Lincoln Center’s plaza. The new house does include space for latecomers to view performances on closed-circuit television, facilitating a rule that they would not be seated until an appropriate interval. And the Opera Club’s elegant new quarters on the Dress Circle level no longer allow members to enter and leave club seats during performances.

Moreover, improvements in backstage facilities—storage areas, dressing rooms, workshops, rehearsal facilities—were staggering. As the Met archivist Peter Clark said in an interview, “there was a total change in what can be done because of mechanical improvements and more space. In the old house each set had to be taken apart after each act and a new one put in place, which was a lot to do in thirty minutes. Because of wing space in the new house, sets can be kept intact and moved to the sides.” The stage was equipped with a turntable that became, as was widely reported, incapacitated when it bore too much weight during rehearsals for the inaugural opera, Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. But all went well a few nights after the opening at the Met premiere of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten: stage elevators allowed a stage setting to be lowered out of sight while a new one descended from above. Technical wizardry, however, continues to have its downsides too, as the Met discovered decades later with its production of Wagner’s Ring cycle by Robert Lepage, which featured a forty-five-ton structure dubbed the “machine” that was supposedly capable of technological wonders but that malfunctioned, made creaky noises, and even threatened the well-being of performers. In any case, keeping the physical plant up to date poses a constant challenge, and in 2012 the Met embarked on a comprehensive $60 million renovation.

The sheer size of the Met has encouraged some to explore other possibilities.

Another major advantage of the house is its acoustics, masterminded by Vilhelm Jordan and Cecil Harris, which, even before the official opening, had been tentatively recognized as superior when a student performance of La Fanciulla del West unobtrusively took place in the new house. Some have attributed the success to the prevalence of African rosewood or to the configuration of the ceiling, with its overlapping discs. Another factor could be the presence of many different surfaces for sound to bounce off. But as Clark noted, “the only thing that can be said for certain is that the acoustics are excellent and the Met never had the problems of other Lincoln Center halls,” such as Philharmonic Hall and the New York State Theater (as they were then called). To be sure, the sound is different depending on where one sits. In the upper regions it is resonant and well blended; in the orchestra it is more differentiated and perhaps more immediate. Certain places on stage are especially advantageous for projecting voices, and singers know where they are.

Yet, fine as the acoustics are, the sheer size of the Met has encouraged some to explore other possibilities. One was Göran Gentele, who succeeded Rudolf Bing as general manager in 1972 and who recognized that many operas benefit significantly from the feeling of intimacy that a small theater provides. Tragically, his tenure as general manager was cut short before his first official season even began when he was killed in an automobile accident, but he made a significant contribution during his brief service by scheduling two productions in the 300-seat Forum (now the Mitzi E. New-
house Theater), including Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, that went ahead after his death despite skepticism from the Met’s board. The idea of a “Mini-Met” was born. Unfortunately, the project was shelved when the Met faced acute financial difficulties a few years later.

One of Levine’s important achievements has been to stage all seven of Mozart’s mature masterpieces, though each requires special treatment. For the relatively delicate Così fan tutte, a favorite of Levine’s, directors typically seek ways to make stages like the Met’s seem smaller or to bring the action out closer to the audience. Voices need to be substantial but flexible and without heaviness; fortunately, some smaller voices do project well. Being able to see visual details, such as facial expressions, is a major plus, as those who attend the Met’s highly popular live, high-definition transmissions in movie theaters are well aware, but only a small minority of seats at the Met permit this. One example: When the fine Swedish soprano Miah Persson sang Fiordiligi in the 1,200-seat theater at Glyndebourne, her face lit up and she whispered “Yes!” to herself in a delightful moment after her sister Dorabella announced that, of the two men seeking the girls’ affections, she preferred “the little dark one”—that left Ferrando to her. When Persson sang Fiordiligi at the Met, not only were such details lost, but her performance seemed small-scaled to those who remembered Kiri Te Kanawa or Carol Vaness.

During the 1980s, Levine himself took up the cause of a smaller theater with a vigor that made it appear to be a high priority. “If we don’t want operatic growth to die, we need in New York a well-planned, well-funded small theater under the auspices of the Met,” he said. In another interview his language was even stronger: “A second, smaller performing space is absolutely critical to the Metropolitan’s future.” It would be “ideally something in the 600 to 1,000-seat range. Possibly 1,200. Once you get to 14 you’re dealing with all the big-house problems.”

There was talk of the Met using the Juilliard Theater (now the Peter J. Sharp Theater) for small-scale performances, but Juilliard opposed the idea because it didn’t want the theater to become unionized. In recent years Juilliard and the Met (through its young artist program) have collaborated on productions, but this joint adventure has amounted to a single opera per year, and no such collaboration is scheduled for the current season. In the mid-1990s, however, a singular opportunity presented itself. Nathan Leventhal, who as president of Lincoln Center initiated a major renovation project, engaged in negotiations with the developer of an apartment tower across from Lincoln Center on the east side of Broadway between Sixty-fourth and Sixty-fifth Streets for inclusion of a 1,000- to 1,200-seat theater. Though contemplated as a Lincoln Center entity, the theater could have served as the small theater Levine had cherished, and building plans were prepared for review by Lincoln Center constituents. Around the same time, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani insisted that a theater tied to Lincoln Center be included within the high-rise tower contemplated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority in its plan to develop Columbus Circle. For a time it looked as though the two plans were rivals, but as the critic John Rockwell, who then ran the summer Lincoln Center Festival, recalled the situation, Leventhal’s plan was vetoed by the Met’s general manager Joseph Volpe, both because the Met didn’t want to take on its share of the theater’s operating expenses (estimated at around $6 million annually) and because Levine had become more interested in other artistic matters, such as the Met orchestra. Giuliani’s plan went ahead and became Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Theater, which opened in the Time Warner Center in 2004. (As the project of a constituent rather than Lincoln Center itself, the theater was not subject to Volpe’s veto.) If it looks like an opera house, it’s because Leventhal’s plans were the basis of its designs.

The need for a small theater has grown more acute in the intervening years. The types of works best suited for the Met’s auditorium—medium-to-large-scale operas calling for big voices—constitute a gradually declining share of the repertoire. This is because pre-Mozart operas—those by Monteverdi and Handel and by a growing number of other composers—have increasingly proven themselves capable of enthralling audiences. The Met has mounted five productions of Handel operas (including two of Giulio Cesare), but Levine has said the house is too big for Baroque opera, and he doesn’t expect it to have much of a future at the Met. A similar situation exists with modern repertoire. The Met has had great success with Alban Berg’s two operas, Wozzeck and Lulu, and other twentieth-
century classics championed by Levine, but other new operas often call for smaller forces than the Met’s size encourages. Although the Met’s meager record for producing world premieres is often criticized, there are reasons the house has given only eight of them. And sometimes composers have ratcheted up their compositional ambitions in hopes of achieving something commensurate with the Met’s magnitude only to achieve awkward results.

As one of the world’s great opera companies, it must not shirk its responsibility by excluding vital segments of the repertoire. Given the sparse representation of neglected masterpieces from the past and of new works, the Met’s principal source of novelty comes from new productions and the assumption of new roles by star singers, such as Anna Netrebko. Say what you will about productions during the current regime of general manager Peter Gelb, most have taken a reasonably fresh point of view while avoiding the distortions typical of highly radical European productions. If you factor in the Met’s consistently fine casts, its strong roster of conductors, and the quality of its orchestra and chorus—as well as the currently robust New York economy—it’s difficult to see what, if any, action the Met could take to bring back attendance levels to those that prevailed during most of the new house’s existence. Prior to the turn of the millennium, the Met played to more than 9o percent capacity in most seasons, but for the 2016–17 season the figure was 72 percent. Although it has never been officially recognized, few would deny that the HD transmissions have cut into—“cannibalized,” insiders say—ticket sales, but they’ve also altered the way American audiences experience opera because, as with a small house, they allow visual details to be appreciated. But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

A dual-house arrangement could pay huge artistic dividends.

Given reality, a supplemental theater along the lines once envisioned by Levine, but perhaps even larger than his 1,400-seat threshold, might well be the way to go. With casts of established singers and rising newcomers, and perhaps an adventuresome production style, it could operate in tandem with the big house, which would continue to give high quality performances of works suitable for it, including popular favorites, in numbers correlated to meet demand. The arrangement could be similar to the division of repertoire at the Paris Opéra, where most operas are given at Opéra Bastille, but works by Mozart and Handel, as well as contemporary titles, are given at the old Palais Garnier, which seats fewer than 2,000. Given the financial pressures that currently constrain the Met, such an arrangement may seem overly ambitious, but continuing the status quo would by no means insure the Met’s future. A dual-house arrangement could pay huge artistic dividends.

Last month the Met celebrated its fifty years at Lincoln Center with a five-hour gala at which more than thirty leading singers appeared along with three conductors and the Met’s chorus and orchestra. With an unprecedented array of projections inspired by fifty-nine Met productions, the evening was almost as impressive visually as musically. Attention was paid to the opera house itself by showing blow-ups of photographs, architect sketches and building plans. But the gala was really a celebration of the Met’s human capital as it exists today and the magnificence of its artistic resources. It is only right that the company operate within physical quarters that allow it to shine in the fullest and brightest possible way.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 10, on page 38
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now