Peter Gelb, the chief of the Metropolitan Opera, gets a lot of good press--and plaudits from theatre-lovers--for his public calls to make opera in America theatrical again. Not just staged concerts. Drawing on A-list American theatre talent (Julie Taymor, Bartlett Sher, Mary Zimmerman) the Met now includes directors' names in their advertisements, even.
This has all seemed like a good thing to me. I love opera. But I lament how uninterested so many theatre friends of mine are in it, since they still dismiss it as that "fat lady sings"/ "Figaro! Figaro!" crap from Bugs Bunny cartoons. While in essence, opera is nothing other than musical theatre. (Of course, many theatre snobs think they hate that, too...)
But it is now time to ask: is Gelb's initiative paying off? Is it a genuine attempt to reinvigorate American opera performance? Or is it just a marketing ploy?
One of the most eagerly anticipated productions in Gelb's lineup has been John (Sweeney Todd) Doyle's new staging of Benjamin Britten's haunting Peter Grimes. Seems like a natural match. Innovative British director takes on dark brooding English seaside tale.
So why has it been almost universally panned?
Much of the critics' blame has been laid at the feet of Doyle and his set designer. But CUNY theatre professor David Savran (whom I've had the privilege of studying with) disagrees. In a private email, he inveighs against Gelb and the institution itself. Far from becoming (finally!) a director-driven (as opposed to star-driven) opera house, the Met, he argues, still cannot (will not?) diverge from the top-down business-management and patron-flattering practices that have kept it such a neolithic institution artistically all these years.
I think this is particularly interesting in the context of Doyle's oeuvre. A director who impressed brilliantly with his pared-down chamber productions of Sondheim musicals has run into more criticism as he's ventured into big stodgy opera houses like LA Opera (Mahagonny) and now the Met. Does it just become harder for a stage director to call the shots in the face of such rigid institutional machinery? And under institutional pressure to give audiences what they think is "their money's worth" when it comes to empty spectacle?
Anyway, here's David:
I was terribly disappointed in Peter Grimes and what I find so interesting is that the problems with the production are in fact symptomatic of the deep-seated problems with the US performing arts organization (the Met) that has by far the largest budget. For it’s obvious to me that the faults in the production are a function of the Met’s house style. In other words, it is an institutional problem.
Let me start by noting that everything in that opera house appears bloated. Not only is the stage so huge but the people who run it clearly feel they need to give their very, very well-heeled patrons a very, very big show. Well, that may work for Aida or Turandot but I am not sure it is appropriate for Peter Grimes. So the opera begins with the gigantic stage and its gigantic black backdrop, i.e., wall, in front of which is a horde of people dressed in, yes, black. Because they want us to know from the outset that this is—guess what?—a dark piece. And every single choice they—designers, director, and the dastardly Peter Gelb—make merely repeat the dark bloated-ness of the whole affair. Intimacy is impossible in an opera that has several profoundly intimate, private, and inner (psychological) scenes. And it’s not only the setting. In fact, one of the main culprits is the lighting designer, the only designer, btw, who comes from the world of opera rather than the commercial theatre. The lighting is so consistently diffused and most of the cues unfold very slowly. Nothing, in other words, is to disturb the heaviness and viscosity, the visual pea soup. And for the sublime interludes, the designer has to keep the lighting slowly shifting, like an abstract slide show. In other words, almost everything in the piece needs to be illustrated and literalized (because, presumably, the audience is too stupid, impatient, or thrill-hungry to be able simply to listen to the music). I know the director and scene designer to be brilliant (because I’ve seen their other work) so it’s obvious to me that the piece was in fact put together by committee. In other words, the institutional policy dictates this obsessive literalness, illustrative-ness, and bloated-ness.
Having said all this, I must admit it sounded pretty darn good. Excellent conducting and almost uniformally first-rate singing. Perhaps if I’d closed my eyes, I would have liked it more, I might even have been moved by it. Of course, rather than spend $100, I could have stayed home in front of my cd-player and listened to Jon Vickers sing it so profoundly movingly. And that might have set me back all of perhaps one-tenth of a cent in electricity. But I am foolish and naïve enough to believe that opera is theatre. Silly me. And in fact I have many times in my life seen opera make brilliant theatre. But not for many years at the house that defines highbrow culture in the US.
To sum up, the whole evening I kept thinking of those wonderful George Grosz drawings and paintings from the 1920s that show groups of overfed, grinning, drooling bourgeois sitting at restaurants and cafes. And I imagine Peter Grimes as a $100 steak that each had ordered. And the steak is just oozing fat, in fact, it’s about 90% blubber. But about 10% of it is protein. Unfortunately, the protein is buried under so much blubber that the only nourishment you get are these big hunks of fat with every disgusting bite.