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molto agitato

2 january 2009

Opera is one of the most collaborative of the arts. Even its cousins theatre and film have featured auteurs who can do everything the medium requires, writing, designing, directing, and starring in their brainchildren. But it's impossible to think of anyone filling much more than one of the jobs required to mount a successful opera; if someone does even two of them, it's likely to be a composer conducting his own work. Plácido Domingo, among others, has had a creditable career as a conductor, following on an enormous one as a singer. But it would confound the imagination to imagine Domingo conducting himself while he sings Otello. Johanna Fiedler's Molto Agitato (out for some years now, but I am just catching up to it) is a study of just how much collaboration is needed to put on a show at one of the grandest of grand opera venues, the Metropolitan.

The cover of the 2003 paperback edition of Molto Agitato is a bit misleading. The subtitle promises "the mayhem behind the music," but the mayhem is pretty mild stuff, at its worst a mere locking of horns between divas. Also, the cover prominently features photos of Domingo and of Luciano Pavarotti, indeed great stars at the Met, but also for some reason of the late Beverly Sills, who was kept off the Metropolitan stage for many years by general manager Rudolf Bing. She was certainly the most identifiable American opera singer of the 20th century, but to put Sills on the cover of a book about the Metropolitan is a little like putting Joe DiMaggio on the cover of a book about the Brooklyn Dodgers.

While anecdotes abound in Fiedler's treatment of the business of running the Metropolitan, the book is not at all a gossip-fest. Fiedler is interested in the history of how the Met, as an institution, has managed to bring opera to the public for (now 125) years, despite the seeming impossibility of coordinating the thousands of people needed to combine to bring off music, theatre, and monumental set design on such a scale.

The Metropolitan was founded in 1883 to serve its boxholders. The newly wealthy of New York, unhappy at not being able to hold boxes at the small, ultra-exclusive Academy of Music near Union Square, took things uptown, building themselves a huge house at 39th and Broadway to see and be seen in. Ever since, the Metropolitan has struck uneasy balances between social spectacle and art, between charitable cause and mercenary marketing, between playground for the monde and refuge for the long-haired enthusiast.

To sustain a season at the Met takes more than singers (and even then, there are singers and singers: the principals, who nowadays work Met appearances into fiendishly complicated international performance schedules, and the comprimari and chorus members, the underappreciated sine qua non of grand opera). Opera takes instrumentalists (the Met's, for much of its history, were chronically on strike over pressure-cooker working conditions). It takes conductors, from the Met's James Levine who has imbued the whole history of the company with his dedicated vision to the veriest guest star who barely rehearses before taking the podium. It takes directors, designers, and costumers, and it takes enormous crews who have run the Met's shops almost as a generational family business. It takes donors. More than any other art-form, the clientele for opera is a strange mix of patrons and paying customers. The other day, my cell phone rang, and the caller turned out to be a Metropolitan Opera staffer wanting more money from me, on the grounds that the tickets I'd recently bought provided only half the means to produce the opera I'd seen. I'd be amazed if a Miramax employee called up to demand an extra ten bucks from me to add to the ten I'd just paid to see Doubt. But with opera, one is always aware that one expects much, much more than one's money's worth.

One gets, much of the time, someone else's money's worth, someone with a whole lot more money than ones's self. A good deal of Molto Agitato concerns, somewhat gingerly, the relation between the Met and its superstar donors, especially Sybil Harrington, the Texas millionaire who gave so much money to the Met that the company renamed its Lincoln Center auditorium after her. Harrington's funds came largely in the form of sponsorships of individual productions. She liked Puccini and Verdi; she liked the elephantine productions of Franco Zeffirelli, and she got what she liked. And in a sense, why not? Concert versions of operas sung in rehearsal clothes may be the best musical option, but they don't require Texan millions to produce. The only way to get the most out of a great opera house is to put the most into it, and Harrington's tastes, for many years, ensured that the Family Circle could enjoy a great big live show for not much more (then or now) than the price of a movie.

Ultimately, grand opera is a paradox. Something big enough to fill a 4,000-seat theatre with sound is something that only the utmost extravagances of naked capitalism can afford, at least in the subsidy-shy United States. Yet to fill those 4,000 seats, one must depend on a loyal core of cheap-seat fans. On something of the same principles, Belmont Park swells to its capacity of 100,000 on great race days with a mix of blueblood equine stock and $2 punters. The ultimate status symbol, opera is also a deeply popular medium – and the Metropolitan, one of the most comfortable and accessible theatres in New York, is its ne plus ultra.

Fielder, Johanna. Molto Agitato: The mayhem behind the music at the Metropolitan Opera. 2001. New York: Anchor, 2003 [with new afterword].

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