The tears of a queen

By James Jorden

What makes a dedicated opera queen (well, anyway this dedicated opera queen) sad? Well, it goes like this: the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera hosts a panel discussion to introduce the company’s upcoming new production of La traviata, the first non-Franco Zeffirelli take on Verdi’s tragedy to be seen there in over two decades.  No tears yet? Bear with me.

Distinguished director Willy Decker explains his interpretation, slides are shown of the stark, imposing set, leading lady Marina Poplavskaya even jokes with the audience about her legs—which are on very much on show in her character’s sleek cocktail dress costume.

And what’s the takeway? Well, it’s not about Traviata. Instead, what everyone’s talkinga bout is a non-event: the Met will not (repeat not) replace its ancient production of La bohème any time in the foreseeable future. When Gelb announced this “news,” the audience applauded, and Daniel Wakin, writing in the New York Times, seized on it for the lead of his coverage of the panel.

Now, it’s not like people haven’t had a chance to see this production. This season marked its 400th performance, and I can recall that when I arrived in New York in 1988, this Bohème was the very first opera I saw—and it was already then in its seventh season!

Let’s take the more charitable point of view here, and put aside for the moment the idea that the Met audience is blindly and irrationally prejudiced against “Eurotrash” productions they’ve never even seen, but only read about in sensationalized “think” pieces. For the moment (and this won’t take long) let’s assume the Met audience likes the Zeffirelli Bohème for a more positive reason, i.e., that it’s familiar and cozy, theatrical comfort food. Fine. But now we have to ask ourselves, should it be the Met’s mission to dish out Mom’s meatloaf meal after meal, even if the customers keep asking for second helpings? Isn’t the Met supposed to be doing, you know, art?

In fact—or I suppose I should say “according to rumor,” which is probably more reliable than reported truth anyway—a source close to the Met has told me that Gelb did indeed plan to replace their Bohème with a staging younger than the singers performing it, and directed by someone still mobile enough to show up at rehearsals. The production, it is said, was to have opened the 2013 season with a star-studded cast including Anna Netrebko, and the (very middle of the road, not at all outrageous) director and production team were already sewed up for that time.

And then something happened: perhaps the Met’s board of directors vetoed the idea, or maybe Gelb himself got cold feet after the strongly negative reaction to Luc Bondy’s Tosca last season. Whatever the reason, the situation is the same: here is the world’s greatest opera company, and they’re afraid to do a new production of La bohème.

Old habits are hard to break, and maybe even more ingrained in the Met’s audience than the idea of opera as comfort food is the sense that “it’s all about the music,” from which is derived the corollary that the stage production should be unobtrusive and, ideally, inexpensive, so we can afford to pay the singers more while keeping orchestra ticket prices in the low three figures. A widespread reaction online to the new production of Don Carlo introduced last month was “there was nothing wrong with the Dexter,” and even that most annoying of catchphrases “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But “broke,” I propose, is the natural state of art; no matter how excellent a production (or a film, or a painting) may be, it’s imperfect, and tends to move farther away from perfection over time. Cultural referents change (so that, for example, the big hair and shoulder pads of Otto Schenk’s 1980s Valkyries start to look like camp) and, in the case of a recreative art like opera, the tautness and specificity of a production tend to unravel over time, leaving behind only the sets and (reproductions of) the costumes to indicate the director’s intentions.

The end result of the “if it ain’t broke” attitude is to devalue stage direction from an art to a sort of luxurious craft, as if the dramatic values in opera were on par aesthetically with a Martha Stewart Christmas wreath. And at the Met, at least, that same wreath will going to continue to hang on the door season after season after season.

As an alternative, I’d like to propose a new slogan for the performing arts: “If it ain’t broke, break it.” Sell those old productions, burn them, repurpose them for window displays at Saks.  But, please, make way for the new!

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