Metropolitan Opera general Manager Peter Gelb announced that following this season the venerable company will take a century long sabbatical. The not unexpected action followed Anthony Tommasini’s likening of the current run of Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Puccini’s final opera Turandot to “anti-asian” hostility. Mr Tommasini, music critic for the New York Times, has pointed out that Met audiences who have flocked to the late Italian director-designers production with awestruck wonder since its 1987 premiere are hopelessly recherché at best or more likely privileged beyond hope. Tommasini is alleged to have told Gelb in a private communication that the company’s only chance at relevance and survival is wait for its audience to pass on to the choir celestial, hence the 100 years of silence. It’s ironic that in order to be woke the Met will have to go to sleep.
An exception is to be made for Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones which will be performed 10 times a year. After 1,000 stagings the Met may be ready to mount something else. An aside, I haven’t seen or heard Mr Blanchard’s opera, but I plan to both listen to it on Tuesday and watch the telecast on Saturday.
Back to sin and transgression. Look at the standard repertory. Start with Mozart. All four of his frequently performed operas have serious problems that will certainly trigger a cocked audience. The Marriage of Figaro features an unfaithful nobleman who wants to exercise his droit du seigneur immediately following the wedding of his housekeeper. Fortunately, he’s foiled. Next is Don Giovanni the despoiler of more than 2,000 women. He ends up in hell but it takes almost three hours of bad behavior before he descends. Così fan tutte is untranslatable, but is best rendered as Women are that way. It is a sexist melange that offends even those beyond delicacy. The Magic Flute’s transgressions are so numerous that I dare not name them. Yet the Met has an abridged version in English scheduled for the holiday season. It’s aimed at children! What will the Met do about Monostatos? I fear for my temporal existence and eternal soul if I depict what Mozart and Schikaneder made of him. Perhaps the Met will just eliminate the part though he’s still on their cast list, but there’s plenty to offend in the rest of the opera. They could do it as a vocalise.
Verdi’s no better. Rigoletto makes fun of a congenital malformation. A serial rapist goes about his nasty business to the ruination of all but a professional murder and his sex worker sister. Then there’s Verdi’s poor sinner – another sex worker who gets shafted by the petit bourgeoisie. Aida and Otello are blackface operas. The Met will whitewash them, but their subterranean identities will remain.
Next are the orientalist operas such as Delibes Lakmé set in British India and Massenet’s Le roi de Lahore also in India. Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles is doubly insensitive as it’s in Ceylon rather than Sri Lanka. But the queen of them all is due to return to the Met this season. Madama Butterfly has more cultural appropriation than a taco blintz. The opera needs a battalion of social workers to deal with all the parental and societal abuses married to glorious music. The Met might have to cancel its subtitles. What to do when Butterfly declares she’s 15 years old?
The Savonarolas of the media will gut Gelb and company like a fat capon when the opera returns next March. No mercy will be shown to an Italian soprano playing Puccini’s underage ‘bride’. That statues of Puccini and Japanese soprano Miura Tamaki, noted for her role as Cio-Cio-San, stand in Nagasaki’s Glover Park will afford no protection for the hapless band of cultural imperialists. Nagasaki, of course, is the city in which Puccini’s 12 handkerchief opera is set.
Another opera set in Japan is Mascagni’s Iris. In this insensitive piece of detritus the title character is thrown into a sewer by the tenor, Osaka – an additional appropriation. She pitched into the slime after she’s rejected Osaka’s sexual advances. Luckily for the Met, the opera is rarely performed.
The enumeration of depraved operas above is just a start. I could go on until the heat death of my CPU. Add to the list as you please.
All things considered, the Met rather than go dark for a century might reconsider the suggestion I made years ago. They used to say as a preamble to asking for money that they lost $100 thousand every time they raised the curtain. Today it’s likely $1 million. I suggested that they not raise the curtain, but continue to sell tickets for operas they were not going to perform featuring artists who would not appear. For example, next Thursday the Met will not perform Aida featuring Rosa Ponselle and Enrico Caruso under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. This might satisfy Mr Tommasini and his pirate band. I can’t be sure, but desperate times call for desperate means.
What about the rest of America’s opera houses? They can’t afford five Rip Van Winkles. There have been rumors in the woke musical press, which is to say all of them, that they (the rest of our opera companies) may add DNA scoring to their metal detectors, masks, and vaccine passports. You’ll need the right kind of DNA to gain admittance. The same holds for the artistic and administrative personnel. They’ll need the right passports to gain employment. The composers and librettists will have to meet the same standard. Of course, most of them are dead. If they have no descendants like Verdi and Puccini – too bad. They’re out. Those with living relatives like Wagner can be back tested. I don’t know if Wagner will pass the test.
What will the European opera houses do? Nothing, I suspect. La Scala will still pronounce Turandot to rhyme with dough and Puccini and Verdi (the names of the streets on either side of the house) will stay open. America is to the world what California is to the US. Even though my speakers are silent and my screen dark, I’m watching the performance of Aida mentioned above. It’s on PBS.
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