Peter Gelb and the Aging of the Met

Spring 2007–The Blue & White

Every Thursday night when you’re getting ready to go out, something extraordinary happens 7 subway stops away: a performance at the Metropolitan Opera.  When it comes to the average age of its audience members, though, the Met is CBS—on a typical night, you are unlikely to find more than a few dozen patrons under the age of 30.  Financially speaking, it’s a problem; after all, an audience that might well be dead before the eleven o’clock curtain offers little promise of repeat business.  With this in mind, and with new General Manager Peter Gelb at its helm, The Met is working hard to shed both its stodgy image and its economic woes.  Now that most venerable of New York’s cultural institutions, needs to make opera fashionable again—that means getting college students off the train at 66th St. for more than just a movie.

Ask the stereotypical college student, and he will likely say that “the opera is A) very expensive, B) for old people, or C) boring,” laments Lieven Van der Veken, a Ph.D candidate at Columbia Medical School.  Van der Veken hopes to change this misconception by founding an as-yet unnamed opera society for college students in New York modeled after a similar group called “Eurydice” that he founded in 2000 at the University of Leuven in his native Belgium. If young people are to attend the opera, he says, “you’ve got to make it attractive.”  In Belgium, “Eurydice” did this by securing discounted tickets, arranging dinners, lectures, and discussions with the Director of the Opera, and meetings with singers during intermissions, features he hopes to bring to the Columbia community next year.  “Eurydice” began as a small group of friends in its first season; five years later, the society has 110 members, the maximum number allowed in its charter.  “You have to give people a social framework,” Van der Veken says of the group’s limited size. “With more people, it wouldn’t feel personal anymore.”

According to Van der Veken, this has been the downfall of Gelb’s efforts thus far.  “It’s all too sterile,” he said of Gelb’s marketing campaign, which has included radio broadcasts, iPod-esque posters, new productions from celebrity directors, and live broadcasts to cinemas around the country, including a free showing of the lavish opening night gala on the Jumbotron in Times Square. “Opera houses are begging for groups of young people,” he says.

For three of the last four years, the Met has been working on budget deficits—in 2002, they just broke even—with operating costs surpassing $200 million.  Even more troubling is the steady decline in the percentage of box office capacity over the past decade, dropping from 92% in 1996 to 79% in 2005.  Such statistics beg the question of what keeps people—especially young people—away from the opera.  In the near future, Van der Veken’s opera society will help take care of the expense, but money is only a small part of a larger problem.  With student rush and standing room policies already in place, one can feasibly secure a ticket to the Met for no more than $25—less than a discounted Broadway ticket.  Why, then, do students continue to wait hours in the cold for tickets to The Producers and Wicked instead of taking the considerably more convenient fifteen-minute subway ride to Lincoln Center?

“People associate opera with melodrama” says opera enthusiast and classically trained mezzo-soprano Maddy Stokes, CC ‘08. Indeed, many people imagine opera as the purlieu of chest-beating, ear-splitting prima donnas. “Going to the opera and seeing good, real drama can convince someone,” says Stokes. People also tend to forget the rich tradition of comic opera, which includes some of the most popular works in the repertoire.  “Making someone laugh at an Opera is important,” says Stokes, “for people who don’t think that’s possible.”

What Stokes describes as the perceived “lock-box of propriety” surrounding the whole institution of the opera, especially at the Met, might prove the single greatest obstacle for Gelb to overcome in his quest to invigorate the world of opera. For years now, opera has been marketed to a very exclusive demographic, namely the buttoned-up, bistro-bouncing, Cabernet-drinking denizens of Woody Allen films; the opera is cursed by its perceived remoteness from ‘ordinary’ people. Many people seem convinced, as I was once, that if they show up at the Met, everyone will somehow know that they do not belong. This intimidation factor is as real as it is absurd, and if Gelb wishes to attract a new audience, he has to make the Met fashionable, not only among the cultured and moneyed elite, but also among…well, the fashionable.

Van der Veken sees this remoteness as the primary difference between opera in the states and opera in Europe.  “In Europe,” he says, “opera is very much a part of the modern art scene.”   Conversely, many American opera companies treat operas like artifacts, often maintaining antiquated productions for years instead of incorporating more daring elements.  “In opera, good updating clings to the best traditions,” says Stokes, something that Gelb has done well since starting at the Met.  New productions of Die Zauberlföte and Madama Butterfly have incorporated modern elements; both have seen stunning critical and financial success.

The task of securing a young audience, though, cannot fall only to Gelb.  Lynn Owen, a voice coach for Manhattan School of Music and Barnard, is a professional Soprano who has performed in opera houses worldwide, including the Met. She feels that educational institutions must take some responsibility. Neither Owen nor Stokes sees students as the problem.  “Once people go, they go again.  They are interested…they just wish they had more time for it,” Stokes asserts.  In spite of changing box office yield for the Met, Owen doubts whether young people have changed significantly in her 20 years teaching in Morningside Heights.  Columbia, on the other hand, has.  Over her years at Barnard, Owen has witnessed the demise of the Columbia Opera Ensemble, as well as a group devoted to the performance of works by Gilbert and Sullivan.  If opera is going to find a younger audience, Owen believes that “schools like Columbia need motivated people—people who believe in the opera and love it with a passion.”

One resource that Columbia maintains is its sizable (and under-publicized) music library.  While we cannot check out CDs, it’s never difficult to bring your computer with you to the library and simply rip as many recordings as you like onto your iTunes—it’ll save you about $30 per recording.  Van der Veken, Stokes, and Owen all agree, though, that there is no substitute for experiencing the opera first hand.  “The combination of great literature, costumes, sets, orchestras, conductors and the world’s greatest music…when it all comes together it’s just magical” Owen rhapsodizes.  Even competing against the glitz of Broadway, the special effects of film, and the convenience of television, opera remains the paragon of escapist spectacle. The opera is comedy and drama, modernity and history, but can only continue as such so long as new generations of audiences carry on this grandest of musical traditions.

At the beginning of February, I attended a performance of Janačék’s Jenůfa, an early 20th century Czech opera about sin, redemption, and infanticide. After three spectacular, heartrending hours, the audience rose and literally screamed during a standing ovation that lasted more than five minutes.  I was overwhelmed. The baby had died, but the stage and the audience were very much alive—and for me, at least, it was worth being late to 1020.

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