Lord of the ‘Ring’

Met's Gelb attempts to reinvigorate the opera

by Yung-hsiang Kao

On Sept. 25, 2006, hundreds gathered in New York’s Times Square to watch the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” on a jumbo screen. The Met, one of the world’s most famous opera companies, was showing its opening night gala live to the general public for free.

Every opening night since, the crowds in Times Square — and before a large screen in front of the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center in New York — witness a free event few would have imagined possible, especially since a ticket to the gala can cost well in excess of $1,000.

As the Met opens its 127th season Sept. 27 with “Das Rheingold,” the first part of Richard Wagner’s four-opera cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” another recent tradition continues: “The Met: Live in HD” series, called “Met Live Viewing” in Japan. These new (and expensive) ideas were pushed by Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, to draw new audiences.

The Met began transmitting live opera in high definition to movie theaters around the world on Dec. 30, 2006. Last season, the series featured nine Met operas that were screened live in almost 40 nations, though due to the time difference they are shown later in Japan.

“We had 2.4 million people who bought tickets to see those nine shows in movie theaters, more than doubling our audience at the Met,” Gelb says.

Before Gelb took his post on Aug. 1, 2006, the Met had been experiencing declining attendance as the audience “was aging at the rate of one year every season and the average age of the audience was 65,” says Gelb, who will be 57 this year.

“The Met Orchestra (under James Levine, the Met’s music director) continued to grow in excellence and stature but other aspects of the Met artistically seemed to not be progressing from the theatrical point of view,” says Gelb.

“And partly I think that was a result of a desire on the part of the management and also the board to keep the status quo. Unfortunately, in the performing arts, that doesn’t work. Nothing can stay the same. And if you try to keep things the same, they end up slipping,” continues Gelb, who was an usher at the Met as a teenager.

“The only reason why the Met in fact approached me, because I had never run an opera house before, was because they expected me to make change,” Gelb says after taking a sip of coffee during a morning interview at the Togeki Building in Tokyo, which hosts one of the 13 “Met Live Viewing” venues across 10 prefectures in Japan.

“Many institutions as they find themselves aging, whether they are artistic or business, grapple with the idea of changing,” he says, “but changing in a way that is productive and doesn’t make them go out of business.”

His track record of helping the arts reach wider audiences stretches back decades and across continents. As president of Sony Classical from 1995 to 2004 in New York, he popularized the record label with film score projects and new commissions. For Seiji Ozawa’s Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, he produced an opera in 1992 and commissioned Canadian director Robert Lepage for another in 1994. Gelb was also the producer of the Met’s 1990 telecast on U.S. public television of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle — a colossal 17-hour program broadcast over four consecutive nights.

With that experience, Gelb was able to launch his plans aggressively and immediately, raising audience numbers and exposure. But not all changes have come without mishap. The opening gala last season was Puccini’s “Tosca,” in a new production by Swiss director Luc Bondy, who was loudly booed by the audience.

Gelb, who has control over nearly all artistic and business decisions, assesses his theatrical changes: “We’ve been mostly successful in maintaining the loyalty of the older audience, including the donors, because they, I think, for the most part, saw the changes that we were instituting artistically were benign.

“What they live in fear of — ‘they’ being the more conservative elements of the audience — is of productions that make no sense, no storytelling sense, that have become popular in certain houses in Europe, in Germany in particular, that these kinds of Regie-concept (operas), or what they call derogatorily as ‘Eurotrash,’ would somehow spoil their experience.”

“Regie-opera” is a production with staging serving the agenda of the director (Regie in German), such as having performers wear Mickey Mouse masks.

“By now they realize that I’m not interested in Eurotrash either,” continues Gelb, who is American. “What I am interested in, though, are the most creative, talented directors. And they all have one thing in common, which is they want to tell the stories of the operas that were written. They use new stage techniques to do that but the stories of the operas are clear and not confusing.”

The next two seasons will be notable for the Met’s new production of the “Ring” cycle, with the first two parts, “Rheingold” and “Die Walkure,” premiering this season. Fans of the Met’s landmark “Ring” cycle by Viennese director Otto Schenk that dates to 1987 may have qualms, but “all productions have a shelf life — the music doesn’t,” Gelb says.

Gelb takes to task the “self-appointed guardians of the art form” who fight change: “They’re contributing to the potential destruction of the art form because no art form can survive, or flourish, or continue without attracting new audience members. And the way you attract new audience members is by offering theatrical experiences that (they) can connect with.”

Gelb entrusted the new “Ring” cycle to Lepage, who has also directed theater and Cirque du Soleil.

“He has ideas nobody has ever thought of before and he uses the latest theatrical technology to serve his ideas,” Gelb says.

That theatricality is not just smoke and mirrors.

“When Stephen Spielberg made ‘Jurassic Park,’ that technical ability to have those special effects had been around for a couple of years, but it only sort of galvanized the world when a great filmmaker suddenly knew how to marshal that,” Gelb says. “That’s what makes film today interesting and theater today interesting, and there’s no reason why opera can’t be made interesting also by using the latest theatrical technology and techniques.”

That technology manifests itself in a set that Gelb describes as “an engineering marvel,” so heavy — about 45 tons — that additional steel supports were needed to reinforce the left stage wagon that allows the set to be rolled onto the main stage. This “amazing stage machine” is the scenery for all the operas of the “Ring,” the last two parts being “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung,” which will debut in the 2011-2012 season. Computer-generated graphics can be projected onto the set’s 24 planks, which are able to individually rotate 360 degrees in either direction.

“It could be the rippling Rhine, it can be the individual flying horses of the Valkyries, it can be one giant winged horse with the planks flying up and down — it can be everything,” Gelb says. “And it will be.”

Those in Japan unable to visit the Met in New York can watch both new “Ring” operas as part of the “Met Live Viewing” series, which starts from Nov. 6.

However, the Met will visit Japan next June, for the first time since June 2006, performing in Tokyo and Nagoya. Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of Levine’s conducting debut with the opera house, the company along with star performers will present three operas.

“Certainly one of the reasons why these live HD transmissions are so important, and this was intended, is to strengthen the bond between the Met and its opera fans wherever they are,” Gelb says. “So I think that, if anything, our presence in Japan will continue with our live transmissions and with our occasional visits.”

For information about “Met Live Viewing,” visit www.shochiku.co.jp/met. For the 2011 concerts, visit www.japanarts.co.jp/MET2011