You want to know what's wrong with the Met?

You want to know what's wrong with the Met?


norman lebrecht

November 12, 2009

If ever you need to know what’s wrong with the Metropolitan Opera and its press puppet, the New York Times, look no further than the opening paragraph of last weekend’s puff piece for tonight’s production of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead. Here goes:

Just as a diva regards her Metropolitan Opera debut as proof that she has arrived, a Met premiere confers on a work a lasting seal of approval. On Thursday, that honor will fall to Leos Janacek’s From the House of the Dead…

Read that and weep. Which part of that sentence and a half might not have been written by a publicity agent? And which other city newspaper would so pump up its opera house to state that until a work has been staged there it simply doesn’t exist? Why, the late Mr Janacek must be jumping out of his grave with joy at the news that his last work is finally getting the seal of approval after 80 years of neglect.

Never mind that House of the Dead has been staged by every major European house and festival over the past four decades, or that Janacek is a box-office cert in most opera cities, a trailblazer for social realism on the opera stage. He became a fixture in London in the 1950s through the advocacy of Rafael Kubelik and Charles Mackerras, in Paris and Berlin soon after and in Milan during the Abbado years. Operagoers in Europe regard Janacek as staple rep. 

New York, though, takes no risks. It was 1991 before the Met got around to staging Katya Kabanova, the composer’s most powerful work after Jenufa, and its public still regards the Czech as as esoteric innovation. Looking at the Met website, there are swathes of vacant seats for the new production.

Despite lagging behind the rest of the world on this and many other creative fronts, the Met and the Times manage to pretend that they are the umbilicus mundi of opera, the seal of approval without which the art form would wither and die. It’s a tragic case of self-delusion and one that inflicts sustained damage on the advancement of opera in the United States.

The Met is, beyond contention, one of the world’s important opera houses. But while its present chief Peter Gelb deserves credit for dragging it halfway into the 20th century (forget the 21st), its inflated self-image has, with the Times’s help, stultified the art and New York’s expectations. The Met is a monolith, a near-monopoly with a tame newspaper in tow. The only seal ever bestowed by the Met is that of certified safety.  



  • Welcome to the 20th C. to our friends at The Met, from your colleagues in Vancouver, BC (where House of the Dead received its North American premiere in 1986).
    We’d be happy to ship you our production of Nixon in China, which is making its Canadian premiere during the Winter Olympics this year, when we’re done with it. We too, think this Adams fellow is someone to keep an eye on.

  • matthew gurewitsch says:

    with his tin ear, mr. lebrecht misses a patent irony. having written the sentences that offend him, let me say: weep if you must, call me what names you like, but you might try reading before railing ( press puppet? a puff piece? “much as the met might hope for another [chereau] bombshell [on the order of his bayreuth ‘ring’], this time the cat is out of the bag. mr, chereau’s well-traveled ‘house of the ‘dead’ was filmed in 2007 in aix-en-provence, France, for deutsche grammophon. the real subject of the story, as mr. lebrecht would know if he had read it, is the role of yveta synek graff, a longtime and highly successful champion of czech opera, in bringing the operas of janacek and other czech composers to the west. n.b. she has no connection with the met’s “from the house of the dead.”
    NL replies: Mr Gurewitsch, the embarrassed author of the NY Times puff piece, does not appear to know the meaning of irony, which OED (following Johnson) defines as ‘a figure of speech in which the itended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used’.
    He has a point when he notes that the Times did not do its usual form of puff – an interview with Met conductor, director, diva – but that it allowed him on this occasion to highlight an unsing hero(ine). However, the only way he could get away with that was by highlightling the inadmissible arrogance of bith institutions in proclaiming that nothing happens in opera unless it’s in the Met and the Times.

  • Jonathan says:

    Norman, Matthew, others
    The only reason for playing opera is the music. In a theater, the orchestra is squashed into a small pit. It doesn’t have the presence it has on the concert stage. And then there are the distractions due to the ingenuity and perversity of the producer. In the concert hall, the real experience of opera can be enjoyed for what it is.
    The promised land for opera is in the concert hall.
    Imagine what would result if this format were introduced tomorrow, all over the place ? For one thing it would quickly ‘weed out’ the poseurs, snobs and nouveau riche from the true lover…. And wouldn’t that be wonderful ?
    Now all we would have left are the genuine opera devotees, those who function at the level of pure aural sensibility, indifferent to everything except the beauty of the tonal and vocal web.

  • House of the Dead already premiered in New York across the plaza at New York City Opera. Yet another reason to love LaGuardia (even if his airport is abysmal).

  • Kmst says:

    Even if Mr. Gurewitsch defends his own piece, Mr. Lebrecht makes a very good point, that of the Met’s arrogance. I agree with him completely.

  • operatic musings says:

    According to the NY Times archives, Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead” received an American Premiere at the New York State Theater in 1990. I’m guessing there were other productions before it.
    So perhaps this is the New York premiere of a particular production, which is apparently pretty good (according to Tommassini)?
    Clearly many institutions in New York are indeed not taking risks because of bleak economic prospects. This, sadly, includes the Times.
    I think every big city has its share of navel-gazing and inflated sense of self-importance. New York is no exception. Nor is London. Nor is Paris.
    Perhaps Mr. Gurewitsch misunderstood one level of Lebrecht’s commentary, which is lamenting the situation for what is unarguably still one of the world’s most important opera houses.
    In my view, after Volpe was unable to surmount the slump that started in post-9/11 New York, the opera house resorted to commercially-savvy tactics which include absorbing every successful Eurotrash production it sees fit.
    Before Gelb stepped in, the Met was in fact criticized for not being “European” enough, having championed more traditional productions with good old singers, and attracting its homegrown crowd of opera-goers. The ones who don’t need to see Mozart productions with fake blood and and stark white sets.
    Perhaps those days are gone.
    It is not a crime to point to a decline in quality that extends from the theaters to the papers, and perhaps some New Yorkers are living in denial. But optimism has always gone a long way in the States. And one can only hope that the city can pull itself out of a depression yet again. Moreover, the entire world of opera has become more self-promoting, less genuine, and overall despicable. If the Met is taking the lead, it should come as no surprise.