Rain is hardly a deterrent in Paris. It’s opening night for a new staging of the John Adams warhorse “Nixon in China,” and the imposing stone walls of the Opéra Bastille are framed by a quickly-brewing storm. Under trickling March skies, the house bears an uncanny resemblance to the military stronghold from which it gets its name, with an austere shadow that throws the square below into a gloomy semi-darkness. But down on the street, the entryway is awash in color. From casual to haute-couture, throngs of ticket holders are chattering amiably and waving with happy shouts of recognition through the drizzle: The city is squeezing in one last cigarette before the curtain. This unphased ambivalence to the darkening skies reads like a classic scene of old Parisian theater-going, stubbornly insistent on the right to cultural experiences come hell or high water or a heavy spring rain. But this time, there’s a catch: not a grey hair in sight. The opening of “Nixon” has been billed as an exclusive Under-30’s experience, a new marketing tactic that has worked wonders for the box office (at ten euros a piece the tickets routinely sell out). This is the opera’s first trip to Paris, and for all the critical anxiety that the American humor of Alice Goodman’s libretto would fall flat on French audiences, the room is electric, hollering its approval for Gustavo Dudamel and his orchestra at the top of the second act and bubbling with laughter at the sight of a 20-foot Chinese dragon playing hide-and-seek with Renée Fleming. Paris has proved once again that young audiences can and will turn out in droves for contemporary opera—even foreign-language operas written before they were born—if given the opportunity to do so. Tonight is as gleeful as first nights come, and the exchange of opinions pouring back into the damp, smoke-filled street at 11:30 is unmistakably warm.
“Young audiences can and will turn out in droves for contemporary opera—even foreign-language operas written before they were born—if given the opportunity to do so.”
The Paris Opera wasn’t always this progressive. Plagued by decades of government mismanagement through the dark years of the Fourth Republic, the Palais Garnier of the early 1960s was a dusty relic of its former glory. The same five pieces of tourist fodder played year in and year out, and the quiet consensus among Parisians was that the institution of French opera was utterly unsalvageable. It wasn’t until de Gaulle’s first ascension to the presidency that hope raised a weary head. Well aware of the financial ruin wrought on the arts sector by the decades-long campaign in Algeria, the new president had the good sense to assign a specially appointed Minister of Culture to sort things out. That Minister, writer André Malraux, in turn suggested that the opera’s best chance at survival was to finally have a composer (rather than a government-approved henchman) at the helm. In a last-ditch attempt to save a ship halfway under water, the position of Administrator of the Opera was offered to Georges Auric, a composer who had come to prominence as a member of the French musical supergroup Les Six. In a muted speech to the press in the summer of 1962, Auric dutifully and against his better judgment announced his intention to accept—on one condition: he would get a production of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” on its feet within a year, or he would quit.
In those days, Berg’s expressionist tragedy was still considered the extreme of operatic modernism, and after Rudolf Bing delivered a production to New York in 1959, the Paris Opera was the last major company to have neglected it. Auric wagered his tenure on the belief that catching Paris up with the international modernist scene was the only way to ensure opera’s survival in the modern world. In his mind, Paris just needed to see “Wozzeck” to know that the genre of opera was still a fertile and worthwhile ground, and though it took him a little longer than his promised year to get there, “Wozzeck” reached the Palais Garnier in November of 1963 with all the stops pulled out. Pierre Boulez returned from self-imposed exile in Baden-Baden, Germany to make his operatic debut, with a staging by the father of modern French theater Jean-Louis Barrault and sets by the Surrealist giant André Masson. The production was sung in German—a scandal at the time, as government oversight required all operas to be sung in French—and headlined by an international cast, blowing the yearly quota for non-native singers on a single show.
“In his mind, Paris just needed to see ‘Wozzeck’ to know that the genre of opera was still a fertile and worthwhile ground.”
The opening night audience was a spectacle equal of its object: the French Prime Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Administrative Reforms, and, because it was the Cold War, the High Commissioner for Atomic Energy all crammed into the Presidential Box seats, while below in the stalls one of the starriest collections of artists ever assembled in Paris rubbed shoulders: reporters sighted Rubinstein, Vilar, Achard, Adamov, Jauve, Chauviré, Aragon, Messiaen, Clair, César, and Cocteau among a host of fan-favorite musicians. “Wozzeck” was a hit, selling every seat for ten straight shows, and making Boulez an overnight opera celebrity. The New York Times followed up with Auric the next summer and found him and his opera in nothing but good spirits: “PARIS OPERA IS ‘IN’” ran the headline, and Auric practically beamed off the page: “At last people are talking again about the Paris opera… and not just here, but all over Europe. My friends in America are writing to me about it. You know, it’s been a long time since people have talked about this house in the same breath with the other great operas of the world…. It brought us a new public, a young and interested public.”
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Late last December, New York’s Metropolitan Opera announced plans to withdraw $23 million from their endowment to produce more contemporary opera per season. This is, objectively, a good thing—interest in modern opera has been on the rise for many years now, with new works routinely outselling the repertory, and the company badly needs the attention of a younger, more progressive audience to make up for their aging demographic. The move, if handled properly, has the potential to put New York back on the operatic map after several decades in the proverbial shadows. But Peter Gelb, the Met’s General Director, seems to have other ideas. In April, Gelb gave a joint interview with Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin to the New York Times that made it abundantly clear what kind of future he has in mind:
It’s not contemporary opera. It’s the right contemporary opera… One of the challenges is the fact that for many decades, with a few exceptions of composers like Philip Glass and John Adams, a large proportion of new operas were inaccessible to a broader public. They may have been works of great artistic merit, but by composers who were appealing more to the intellect than hearts of listeners.
It’s hard to overstate how dangerous this thinking is. What Gelb’s subtext implies is a thinly-veiled aesthetic censorship: The Met will give preference to works that toe the line. Operas tailored to the tastes of a wealthy, conservative demographic—like “The Hours,” with an inoffensive score, delineated arias, a well-known story, and silver-screen allure—will get priority over works that challenge, oppose, or experiment with the form (Anthony Davis and Kaija Saariaho are the most “out” composers in future seasons). Gelb is telegraphing to composers that stylistic conformity within the boundaries of a populist musical means is the only possible route to success in New York, offering rewards in exchange for lack of risk. This mindset would be unthinkable in any other discipline: imagine a museum saying they’ll only hang “the right contemporary art,” or a cinema playing only “the right contemporary cinema”: but opera, so long in bondage to a bourgeois class comfort, seems to think it can get away with it.
Gelb’s suggestion that most modern opera is “inaccessible to a broader public” is a dog-whistle. Experimental opera continues to draw huge crowds around the world, especially in cities like Paris and Berlin, where audiences are given consistent and repeated opportunities to engage with it on a critical and meaningful level. Continuous access and accurate information are always the first bridges to appreciation, and one of the hallmarks of a healthy democracy is an unrestricted flow of art which is permitted to scrutinize, negotiate, and challenge the conventions and perceptions of its time. But when leaders make blanket dictums about the “right” and “wrong” kinds of art, the public loses the freedom to make informed decisions. The pruning of opera to prioritize what is “acceptable,” “accessible,” and “appealing” threatens to have the devastating artistic consequences historically associated with totalitarian regimes. In some ways this kind of propaganda-style work has already begun: Gelb cheerfully mentioned future plans to stage a fluffy adaptation of the Cher rom-com “Moonstruck,” quietly leaving out a more sinister commission about drone-era warfare whose main sponsor is the arms manufacturer and U.S. defense contractor General Dynamics. (The company has said it was not involved in the content of the work.)
When leaders make blanket dictums about the “right” and “wrong” kinds of art, the public loses the freedom to make informed decisions.
If the Met wants to make serious headway in wooing younger American audiences to modern opera, it first need to catch them up with the rest of the world. There have been dozens of epoch-defining works since the end of World War II that Lincoln Center has ignored, and even factoring in the logistical restrictions of the Met’s enormous size and its predilection for grand spectacle, the list of worthy candidates is long: Harrison Birtwistle’s “Gawain,” revived in London and Salzburg, raises classic English mythology to a mammoth scale and has a lead lyric baritone role almost begging for Gerald Finley; Helmut Lachenmann’s “Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern” turns the whole opera house into a flaming match-strike and was so popular at its 2001 Stuttgart run that they added performances because it kept selling out; Meredith Monk’s “Atlas,” written for Houston in the early ‘90s, follows one of history’s most famous female explorers on a journey through the cosmos to music by one of America’s living legends; Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s “Die Soldaten” (widely considered the natural descendent of “Wozzeck”), a sprawling work played out on multiple stages that paints a timely and devastating picture of the abuse of women in wartime (all the more prescient in the wake of Ukraine); Olivier Messiaen’s four-hour epic “Saint François d’Assise,” a ready-made spectacle of “Parsifal” dimensions with some of the composer-ornithologist’s most arresting melodies; or, since film adaptations have been such a hot commodity, Olga Neuwirth’s uncanny, unsettling, and deeply engrossing take on David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” (in 2019, Neuwirth became the first woman ever commissioned by the Vienna Staatsoper). Any one of these in New York would be an international affair; none of them have seen the inside of the Met.
In the Met’s conspicuous absence, other New York performing organizations have picked up the slack. Over on the East Side, the Park Avenue Armory has hosted “Die Soldaten,” Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s “De Materie,” and Michel van der Aa’s hologram-opera “Upload” (there were once plans by former City Opera director Gerard Mortier to bring “Saint François” there too, but those never materialized). Further south, the Brooklyn Academy of Music staged “Atlas,” while the now-defunct Lincoln Center Festival made a habit of programming Salvatore Sciarrino’s breathtaking theaters of obsession; in 2018, Carnegie Hall brought Luigi Nono’s “Intolleranza,” the piece that broke the barrier between the avant-garde and the opera.
Even the neighbors are starting to get suspicious. Next door at Lincoln Center, the New York Philharmonic has had to do some serious heavy lifting to keep contemporary opera afloat. In 2010, they mounted a semi-staged production of Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s infamous “anti-anti-opera” “Le Grand Macabre” that (notice a theme here?) sold out every night. The piece is a modernist classic with everything an opera fan could ask for: stratospheric sopranos, bodily humor, drunken brawls, love duets, curse words, naked goddesses, and a baritone who rides a tenor like a rocking horse and proclaims the end of the world. A bold and brassy comedy traditionally sung in the native language of the presenting country, “Le Grand Macabre” ought to be a shoo-in for the Met, but came to New York through its orchestra instead. (2023 is the Ligeti centenary; both Munich and Vienna saw the opportunity and will mount new productions of the opera next season.) More recently, the Phil was slated to host the American premiere of György Kurtag’s late-life masterpiece, an operatic adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s “Fin de partie” that has already rocked Paris, La Scala, and Amsterdam, and just made a triumphant London premiere at the BBC Proms earlier this month. And next season the orchestra will play a new work by Chaya Czernowin, the current matriarch of modern composition and head of the department at Harvard University—but New Yorkers shouldn’t hold their breath to see either of her large-scale stage works (“Heart Chamber” and “Infinite Now,” both of which won big at the Opera World awards) at the Met anytime soon. Put another way: When your neighbors feel responsible for watering your flowers, it’s probably time to reassess your relationship to the garden.
“The Met cannot simultaneously promise to be an international opera house dedicated to the future of the form and then stage only safe, coddling, inoffensive operas reliant on big-screen adaptations or celebrity star-power to sell tickets.”
For better or for worse, the Metropolitan Opera sets the standard for the American opera landscape. As one of the few institutions in the country with the finances to mount major undertakings, it has a responsibility to keep the U.S. plugged in to its European counterparts, who, for their part, have done the same for us (remember that the three operas in Philip Glass’s beloved trilogy which Gelb cites as positive exceptions—“Einstein,” “Satyagraha,” “Akhnaten”—were all European commissions). The Met cannot simultaneously promise to be an international opera house dedicated to the future of the form and then stage only safe, coddling, inoffensive operas reliant on big-screen adaptations or celebrity star-power to sell tickets. Gelb has made the assumption that American opera-goers will reject truly cutting-edge opera without ever giving them the chance to hear it.
Since the start of his tenure in 2006, Gelb’s aesthetic censorship has gatekept major developments in opera from the New York landscape, leaving the city trailing far behind the rest of the world. New American opera doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but U.S. audiences are routinely asked to assess their national scene without any knowledge of the global context in which to situate it. If Paris in 2023 can sell out John Adams to an under-30 audience, the Met should have no problem doing the same with Neuwirth or Kurtág—they’ve just never bothered to try. It’s time Peter Gelb stopped telling American audiences what the “right contemporary opera” is and let them decide for themselves. ¶
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