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International: How the New York Met is bringing opera to the world

The opera house on Lincoln Center Plaza. Photo: Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera The opera house on Lincoln Center Plaza. Photo: Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera
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New York has both the Met and the Mets. The latter is a baseball team that rivals the Yankees for the affections of sporting New Yorkers. The former is in a league of its own as one of the greatest opera houses on the planet. The Metropolitan Opera, to give it its full name, is about to begin its 132nd season, but this is also a landmark year as it marks its 50th anniversary in its handsome modernist home at the heart of the Lincoln Center, since leaving its original home on 39th Street and Broadway further downtown.

This vast cultural complex on Manhattan’s West Side also includes a concert hall, another lyric theatre that is home to New York City Ballet and other visiting companies, a theatre complex comprising three stages (the largest of which is regarded as a Broadway house), a huge performing arts library, and one of America’s foremost music and drama schools, the Julliard. But when you stand at the famous fountain on the centre of the main plaza, pride of place is taken by the Metropolitan Opera House, the middle of the three main buildings located around the fountain, with the theatres and library tucked behind the Met in a separate plaza of their own.

Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb in the auditorium. Photo: Dario Acosta
Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb in the auditorium. Photo: Dario Acosta

New York City Ballet and New York Philharmonic Orchestra are resident companies at the David H Koch Theatre and David Geffen Hall, which flank the Met on either side, but they share them with other companies and events throughout the year. It is the Met alone that programmes a 33-week annual season, offering what its general manager Peter Gelb calls “non-stop opera all the time”, with 225 performances of 26 operas in the coming season – six of them new this year. “We have a more intense operation than other leading opera houses, because unlike some of the others, we don’t have a full-time ballet company performing in the repertory cycle with us, as, for instance, Covent Garden does,” Gelb clarifies.

The Met routinely attracts the biggest stars of opera, on and off stage and in the orchestra pit. The coming season features Simon Rattle conducting a new production of Tristan Und Isolde starring Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme in the title roles. Gerald Finley, Marina Rebeka and Bryan Hymel will appear in a new production of Guillaume Tell and Renee Fleming will perform in a new production of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier (co-produced with Covent Garden and Teatro Regio di Torino).

Other new productions will be directed by Robert Lepage, Bartlett Sher and Mary Zimmerman. Among 20 revivals of old productions staged across the season, singers that will appear include Anna Netrebko in Richard Eyre’s production of Manon Lescaut. She is also singing in Eugene Onegin opposite Dmitri Hvorostovksy, with Roberto Alagna appearing in Cyrano De Bergerac, Michael Volle in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Hollander and Placido Domingo in Nabucco, as well as conducting La Boheme.

Presiding over a vast operation that employs about 3,400 people annually is Gelb, who is beginning his 11th year at the helm, and tells me that he first worked at the Met when he was a teenager as a part-time usher: “My station was the standing-room section at the very top of the Met, where all the opera fanatics would attend night after night and argue with each other about the singers. My job was to break up their fights and try to keep order.”

Just like his current job? “I suppose it hasn’t changed – except I have a larger playing field today than back then.”

Not to mention a much bigger budget: for the 2015/16 season, the company’s total expenditure was $296 million. One of Gelb’s biggest challenges has been trying to rein in the company’s expenses. He says: “We’ve reduced the operating costs by about $22 million over the past year as a result of new union agreements and other cuts. No opera company on this kind of scale, with a full-time orchestra and chorus and stagehands and crew, can possibly break even or even come close to it from ticket revenues. Our earned revenues approach 50% between the box office and the very successful operation we have in media, through our Live and HD broadcasts – we’re the only opera company in the world that makes a profit from our media operations, which provide a net to our bottom line of around $18 million a year after incremental expenses and revenue sharing.”


5 things you need to know about the met

1. The Met: Live in HD series transmits Met performances to more than 2,000 cinemas in 70 countries around the world. Ten performances will be broadcast in 2016/17, beginning on October 8 with the new production of Tristan Und Isolde, which will be the 100th transmission in the series. Within months of their initial live transmissions, the Live in HD programmes are shown again on PBS as part of their Great Performances at the Met series.

2. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Met being sited at the Lincoln Center – 40 years of which have seen James Levine leading the company musically. He returns this season to conduct Mozart’s Idomeneo and Rossini’s L’Italiana In Algeri.

3. Ticket prices range from $25 to $480 in the 3,800 seater house. About 38% of Met tickets cost less than $100 and 60% cost less than $150.

4. The September 26 premiere of Tristan Und Isolde will be transmitted live to numerous large screens in Times Square.

5. The Met/LCT New Works programme is actively developing new pieces for the opera and music theatre stages. Ricky Ian Gordon is completing composing Intimate Apparel, adapted by playwright Lynn Nottage from her play of the same name, and Jeanine Tesoro is working with playwright George Brant to adapt his play Grounded as an opera.

As a result of the live broadcast cinema programme – an initiative that Gelb introduced and has since provided the direct inspiration for NT Live and real-time live and encore broadcasts for other theatrical events – the Met had an estimated global audience of 3.2 million in the 2015/16 season; some 2.6 million attended a Live in HD performance, two thirds of whom were outside the US, while more than 600,000 people attended shows at the Met itself, representing some 72% of capacity. “Only the Royal Opera House is close to us in terms of reach, but we have a considerably larger audience than they do on a global basis,” Gelb says.

On the one hand, the live broadcasts are a good thing. “They help us with our casting,” says Gelb. “It’s much easier for the comfort of opera stars for them to stay in Europe, where they can move from opera house to opera house with very little difficulty, than for them to have to travel to New York. But coming here, we offer them the possibility of the broadest possible audience distribution. When they sing a matinee at the Met that’s being transmitted into movie theatres, that’s another 250,000 people seeing them, and there are also millions more on radio. Our radio distribution is not just in the US but also live across Europe, with the BBC taking most of our shows, so for singers it is very exciting to know that they’re being seen and heard by a global audience when they perform on our stage.”

On the other hand, could the broadcasts be having a detrimental effect on the size of the audience itself in the house, who can see the shows more cheaply in cinemas now?

“The audience is in a state of transition,” admits Gelb. “The good news is that last season we had 75,000 new ticket buyers that we had no record of having previously bought tickets, but the difficulty we have is that the core audience continues to gradually decline, mainly because it is ageing. This is where lack of education is such a problem. Up until the 1960s and 1970s, arts education was part of the curriculum. It’s amazing now to think that Philip Glass, in his first job after he left college, was in a federally funded position as composer-in-residence for Pittsburgh’s public schools system. Whether the lack of cultural education is the result of cultural shifts or has caused the culture shifts is another question, but it’s probably a bit of both.”

Gelb monitors the live recording of Salome from the control room. Photo:  Ken Howard
Gelb monitors the live recording of Salome from the control room. Photo: Ken Howard

This means ever bigger challenges for the Met in trying to grow the audience for what is often perceived to be a specialist or elitist art form.

“It’s harder than ever to get people introduced to opera, which is why the pressure is on us in ever greater amounts to get great directors and encourage a new generation of singers, who understand it is not just about singing but acting as well. The days of parking and barking at the Met, as it was once described, are long gone.”

Many of those great directors have come from Britain. During Gelb’s tenure, he has brought in Richard Eyre, Jonathan Kent, Nicholas Hytner, Michael Grandage, Phelim McDermott and Tom Morris, among others.

“My approach to running the Met from a artistic point of view is to try to accomplish the best we can achieve on the stage. We just go after the best directors, and many of them happen to be British, though we also have American, French and German directors. But particularly at a time when opera is in search of new audiences and has to be more accessible to survive, I’ve rejected directors who want to deconstruct operas to the point where you really have to have a companion guide to understand them.”

Those directors are full of admiration for what Gelb and the Met achieves. Grandage, for instance, speaks admiringly of the delicate negotiation Gelb brokers: between letting directors bring their vision to a piece and the need for audiences and singer to have a conductor as a key part of it all. “That could be tricky in terms of directors who are not used to job sharing at the top, but Peter and the Met’s managing of it has been rather brilliant. Imagine running that place – and yet he brings it all together somehow.”

And, adds Grandage: “He’s led the way throughout the world for live broadcasts, which the National followed. I’m looking forward to catching up with my own production of Don Giovanni from there in a cinema in London. I just need to work out if I’ll want to phone back any notes.”

For McDermott, who has worked several times at the Met, watching the theatre at work has been an inspiration: “The first time I saw them striking the set for my production of Satyagraha, my heart leapt in my mouth. They were like amazing pirates deconstructing it in record time.” But the skills of the singers also thrill him: “They are like athletes of the voice, and I feel very privileged to have a chance to work with people of that calibre.”

Finally, for Morris, whose production of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer transferred from ENO to the Met, it was an experience not without controversy.

“It gave me an extraordinary insight into Peter’s leadership. Money to fund the Met comes not from public subsidy but from donors, and some started withdrawing their funding in protest at this opera, because they thought it was sympathetic to the Palestinian side of the conflict. That makes the company incredibly vulnerable to the opinions of its donors. He and the company also had death threats. But throughout it all he remained incredibly calm and supportive of the creative process, and with Ann Ziff, the absolutely extraordinary chair of the board who backed the decision he’d made to do it. They wouldn’t allow this extraordinary hostility and controversy to deter them. It was an incredibly courageous thing to do.”

Profile: Metropolitan Opera

General manager: Peter Gelb
Music director emeritus: James Levine
Principal conductor: Fabio Luisi
Number of performances per year: 225 performances of 26 operas (2016/17)
Audience figures in 2015/16: Estimated global audience of 3.2 million, of whom 2.6 million attended Live in HD transmissions, 600,000 attended live performances at the Met
Number of employees: Approximately 1,600 full-time and seasonal employees between August and May; approximately 3,400 total employees (including part-time)
Turnover: $296 million (2015/16)
Website: metopera.org

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