Opera Reconsidered (After Sixty Years)by Richard Kostelanetz
Opera is a tough art for those who resist it, as I have done for most of my adult life. Perhaps I was taken too often when I was young. I didn’t like most people I knew who went regularly. I’m not gay. I couldn’t follow the action, and was unable to read or remember the program synopses in the theater’s darkness. And I imagined that you needed more formal dress than my closet contained.
But in my sixties, I started to attend the Metropolitan Opera whenever possible, often sitting in the middle of the upper deck, much as I do at Yankee Stadium, so that I could see the whole stage from top to bottom, from end to end, and even into the orchestra pit. (I also take powerful binoculars to both venues.) The alternative—sitting in the opera boxes along the sides of the hall—is much like sitting in stadium seats along the first- or third-base lines: they make it difficult to see what’s happening in the stage’s corners.
One pleasant surprise is that the folks upstairs dress informally, much as I do. A second is that the new subtitles, appearing unobtrusively on a horizontal screen below you, are useful, even when the opera is in English. Most everyone I know who has gone for the first time recently has been favorably impressed. Even when performances at the Met have been officially sold out, I’ve more than once scored one of the fifty senior tickets that go on sale at noon Monday through Thursday and, just before the show began, even scalped single tickets at face value just outside the Lincoln Center door. (Pairs are scarcer, alas.)
Since opera plots are trivial, consider focusing on the quality of the singing (and, by extension, the music) and the stagecraft. Some of the singers are extraordinary, performing without microphones in an immense space, their voices clearly audible even in the upper deck. Go hear the countertenor Andreas Scholl, the sopranos Susan Graham and Karita Mattila, and the tenor Juan Diego Florez—all demonstrably superior to the other professionals around them. Regret that you missed Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti. And don’t forget the Met chorus, which I would rank among the best in the world. As the Met stage is wider and taller than most, the images are often spectacular and memorable. Except for those overly concerned with plot, the opera world’s Yankee Stadium offers live theater at its best.
As with baseball, there’s also a chance of seeing something surprisingly special, such as a substitute tenor who can or can’t fulfill his role (theatrically interesting either way), a singer accidentally falling into the prompter’s pit, or a star singer collapsing in mid-scene to be replaced after the curtain’s fall and subsequent rise by a substitute who had been sitting along with the other designated pinch-hitters in a front box stage left. When a player makes an egregious mistake, the aficionados loudly mock him, much as they do at Madison Square Garden: in opera as in sports, New York audiences are tougher than most, sometimes sending fragile performers back to the provinces, and these are remembered no less than the great ones.
If you can’t get to Manhattan or can’t afford tickets priced higher than those for a movie, consider the films that the Met has been distributing to select movie houses around the country. In New York, some of these also appear free on public television. The films I’ve seen are all well-done and well-photographed; they also have good sound (thanks, I assume, to the microphones forbidden in live performances) and, thankfully, subtitles.
Even those operas I’d already seen live, albeit from the upper deck, were enjoyable on a smaller screen with individually distinguishable faces. However, much as televised baseball can’t fully capture the experience of the entire field, so the opera cameras inevitably short-change the magnificent Met-opera stagecraft. Ersatz is ersatz.
If you go, don’t fail to appreciate the Metropolitan Opera as historically the safest gay hangout in New York City. In his rich history, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890 – 1940, George Chauncey notes that for decades the fuzz were able to raid everything except the old Met on Broadway and 40th Street. It was apparently “protected” to a degree that transient bathhouses, bars, and clubs were not. When I mentioned this anomaly to a friend who worked recently as the Met’s chief usher, he replied that the Met had long employed moonlighting cops for its own security.
One warning: new Met chief Peter Gelb has gotten it into his head that opera must be merchandized, much like Hollywood movies or sports teams, and so his Met favors the promotion of stars as superstars, though some are better than others and many won’t star for long as newcomers will be promoted in their stead. Some of these current stars are also recruited to work the intermissions in the Met films, inadvertently discrediting themselves with clumsy English and insipid fawning chatter (reminding me of ballplayer interviews). As in sports, buy the team, not the stars.
RICHARD KOSTELANETZ recently completed a second book of essays on innovative music.