The Culture

As curtain falls on the Met's 50th anniversary season at Lincoln Center, what's next for opera in America?

As opera companies take stock this summer, many are looking beyond 2018 to find solutions to funding woes and negative public perceptions.

This 2009 image released by the Metropolitan Opera shows The Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center Plaza in New York. The Met recently completed its 50th anniversary season at the location in an atmosphere of continuing uncertainty about the future of opera in the United States.
Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera via AP
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Those looking for good news about the future of opera in America found it an unusual spot this May: Hollywood's global box office report. Along with "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2," "Beauty and the Beast," and the "Fate of the Furious," the Top 10 featured the Metropolitan Opera's "Der Rosenkavalier."

On May 13, the Metropolitan Opera ended its 2016-17 season with Franco Alfano's semi-obscure "Cyrano de Bergerac." But in many ways, the true final production of the season was the matinee of Richard Strauss's far more famous work, "Rosenkavalier," which took place earlier that same day – and which was simultaneously broadcast to movie theaters around the world.

"Rosenkavalier," a bittersweet comedy that premiered only three years before the outbreak of World War I, is full of the zeitgeist of the period in which it was written. Fears associated with the fading of old social norms and doubts about an unknown future permeate the opera, themes explicitly brought out by director Robert Carsen and driven home by operatic superstars Renée Fleming and Elīna Garanča, who both announced that they would be retiring from the opera's two lead roles after this production in favor of new and unknown repertoire. 

It was a topical artistic choice for the close of the season celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Met's move to its current home in Lincoln Center. But despite the celebratory mood at the Met, continuing low ticket sales and a general American apathy toward the opera has left many to wonder whether the Met will make it to another golden anniversary. And as the largest and arguably the most important opera house in the United States, what happens to the Met has significant implications for what happens to the art form in the rest of country.

"Opera, from an artistic point of view, is stronger than it's ever been, in many ways," says Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager. "The struggle for opera has to do with the transition from an aging audience to a new one."

Despite higher performance standards than ever before, ticket sales at large companies like the Met simply can't cover costs by themselves – particularly with new audience members tending to buy single tickets rather than subscription packets. Unlike thriving opera companies in Europe, American companies don't receive enough government funding to make up the difference, and the age of dependably wealthy patrons spending big bucks to fund opera houses has been over for decades.

The news isn't all bad, however. According to Mr. Gelb, more first-time ticket buyers came to the Met last season than ever before, and the Met's "Live in HD" broadcasts to movie theaters have seen success as well. "Rosenkavalier" wasn't even the Met's highest-grossing opera of the season: That honor went to its March performance of "La Traviata," with Sonya Yoncheva.

"This is a public art form ... and as long as we have the public, the art form will survive and thrive," says Gelb. "But it's our job to make sure the public is there."

Through programs like the "Live in HD" transmissions and partnerships with educational and artistic institutions, the Met hopes to maintain the public's interest in opera for decades to come. But audience outreach and education is a big burden, especially for smaller companies. And in the US, all other opera companies are small compared with the Met, the budget size and season length of which dwarf even those of its nearest competitors.

Yet those smaller opera companies may actually be the wave of the future, says Douglas Clayton, general director of Chicago Opera Theater (COT) – if they're able to adapt with the times.

"I do think that the model around the giant opera hall is going to fade," Mr. Clayton says in a phone interview. "And I'm hopeful that what we'll see ... is five smaller opera halls instead of one giant, big one."

Across the United States, opera companies are turning to smaller-scale, more unusual works to supplement or even replace the traditional repertoire. But while this can certainly be a cost-saving technique, it also provides opportunities for cultural relevance – bringing communities together and artistically addressing the problems of the modern world. Last season, for instance, COT co-hosted the American premiere of the Philip Glass opera "The Perfect American," an opera based on the life of Walt Disney, and the world premiere of "The Invention of Morel," an opera by Stewart Copeland, former drummer of the English rock band The Police. 

At its best, opera draws on something universal that does not alter with time or trends, says Clayton. "Fifty years from now, society, technology, all those things are going to be so much more advanced than we even know. But the piece of that that I don't think will change – as long as we're human beings, and haven't completely turned into robots – is that we will still have this desire to connect with other people, and to be creative about how we do that."

Despite the artistic differences in their respective companies, both Gelb and Clayton agree that opera in the US does have a future. But both also stress that as an art form it will have to create a living, breathing experience for everyday people and free itself of the elitist perceptions that have held the art form back over the past few decades. It's just going to need hard work – and a lot of it, says Gelb.

"I think what is essential for any opera company, whether it's small, medium, or large, is to find cultural relevance ... and connections in the community to inspire audiences to want to participate," he adds.