At Met Opera, a balancing act between the traditional and cutting-edge
The Metropolitan Opera in recent years has taken steps to draw in new opera-goers with more modern works, this year launching its season with its first piece by a Black composer.
The prestigious New York institution on Feb. 28 launched the second half of its programming with another milestone, although this one appears designed primarily to satisfy its older guard.
The company will perform Giuseppe Verdi’s “Don Carlos” in its original French, the language the epic opera was first performed in when it premiered in Paris in 1867, instead of the usual Italian translation.
“We have a very eclectic audience,” Met General Manager Peter Gelb said of the juggling act between pieces like “Don Carlos” and “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” the work that opened the season by Terence Blanchard, who proudly touted the September premiere with the social media hashtag “#MetSoBlack.”
“We have very conservative audiences and we also are attracting very young and diverse audiences,” Gelb said. “Not everything will please all of them.”
“But we’re trying to at least please most of them most of the time.”
“Fire” was the first full opera performed at the house in a year and half due to the coronavirus pandemic, and marked the organization’s boldest step thus far to appeal beyond its usual core audience, which generally leans older, wealthier and white.
Audiences at “Fire” performances, half of which sold out, were notably younger and more diverse.
To coincide with premiering the opera that tackles issues surrounding racism, sexual identity and trauma, the Met also organized related events to engage new audiences including a simulcast of the show in Harlem.
“Don Carlos,” in contrast, exudes tradition: Set in a royal court during the Spanish inquisition, it’s populated by a troubled set of characters who spend much of five-act saga conspiring against each other.
While the demands are different than with a completely new work like “Fire,” reinventing a beloved work like “Don Carlos” involves challenges of its own.
Verdi’s longest opera, the Italian version of “Don Carlos” has been a staple at the New York house for decades, featuring stars like Jussi Bjorling, Franco Corelli and Montserrat Caballe.
“Don Carlos” requires marathon singing performances from the tenor in the title role as well as from the soprano playing Elisabeth de Valois, whom Don Carlos loves; they are played by Matthew Polenzani and Sonya Yoncheva.
The work brimming with wrenching arias and confrontational duets was in this rendition staged by David McVicar, and features mostly dark sets that capture a grim world backdropped by war and terror.
Ben Bowman, a violinist and Met Orchestra concertmaster, said that when it comes to famous operas like this one, “I don’t know that innovation is so critical.”
“What we cherish is the opportunity to carry out these traditions, and to sustain them for future generations.
The goal is to capture with “emotionally historic accuracy” the stifling atmosphere of the Spanish inquisition, said Gelb, which he called a “good parable for what is happening in today’s world with rising intolerance and rampant authoritarianism.”
Speaking with AFP midway through a final dress rehearsal, Gelb reported “grumbling” from some old-timer audience members over some of the set choices.
“I can’t keep them always happy,” he chuckled.
Appointed in 2006, Gelb has had ups and downs with benefactors and other key figures in the Met universe over his tenure, but says “the Met is much more adventurous artistically” than it was when he began.
“It has to be,” he said. “For the art form to survive we have to break new ground.”
“Art is about change.”
The company last week announced its 2022-23 season with a balance that includes “Champion,” another Blanchard opera, as well as the premiere of the contemporary piece “The Hours.”
And it will, as always, feature new productions of classics, including by Wagner and Mozart.